Gun Background Checks: Fact or Fiction?

The gun-control debate in the Senate will now shift from prohibiting the sale of certain firearms to restricting criminals and the insane from gaining access to firearms. Prepare yourself to hear a lot about background checks and the figure 40 percent.

In an odd gesture of self-disarmament, Democrats abandoned “banning” assault weapons, or military-style semiautomatic rifles. The legislation sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would have prohibited only the sale of certain kinds of new rifles, leaving millions of identical weapons in private hands. That flaw, one of several that would have undermined the effectiveness of the proposal, is now irrelevant, though, as Feinstein’s bill never gained traction with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats from pro-gun states.

Gun-control proponents next will turn to shoring up the background-check system, which aims to prevent the wrong people from getting their hands on guns. One might think there wouldn’t be a lot of disagreement about whether felons or the mentally disturbed ought to be kept away from deadly weapons. After all, that’s already the law for sales by federally licensed gun dealers. In one of those head-scratching statutory quirks, sales by unlicensed “private” individuals are not subject to the computerized background checks overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Democrats want to make background checks comprehensive—a sound idea.

Don’t expect bipartisan consensus. The National Rifle Association and its Republican allies in Congress vow to oppose comprehensive background checks on the theory that they are a step down a slippery slope to a national registration system and, ultimately, confiscation of privately owned guns.

Leaving aside the NRA conspiracy theory, let’s ponder the statistical underpinning of the push for comprehensive background checks. The New York Times, to choose just one major news source, describes the idea as “a measure that would expand background checks to nearly all gun purchases, roughly 40 percent of which are not subject to them, according to numerous studies.” In other words, the Times contends that about four out of 10 gun sales occurs with no questions asked—at weekend gun shows, kitchen tables, and wherever else unlicensed sellers do business. President Obama refers to “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases [that] are conducted without a background check.”

That’s baloney, according to pro-gun advocates. John Lott, a former chief economist at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, calls that 40 percent figure “a myth.” He says the real figure “is closer to 10 percent.” Lott’s assessment matters because he is probably the NRA’s favorite social scientist. When the Senate gets back from its impending two-and-a-half-week spring break, we will be hearing more from background-check skeptics invoking Lott.

So who’s right? Are there “numerous studies” supporting the 40 percent figure? The answer to that is a simple no. As best I can tell, there is a single study, now approaching social science decrepitude, which serves as the factual foundation for the 40 percent stat (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have alluded to myself).

In May 1997, the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department, published the results of a survey conducted by two respected researchers who concluded that “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved FFLs [federally licensed dealers] and hence were subject to” background checks.

Lott criticizes the relatively small size of the survey, as well as what he sees as its various methodological and definitional weaknesses. His skepticism deserves attention, as does his tendency to find fault with any research he sees as questioning his heartfelt but controversial view that broader ownership and carrying of firearms decreases crime rates.

My bottom line is that the authors of the dusty Justice Department study seem to have been reasonable enough in their research and analysis. Still, it’s long past time to do a new survey and see whether the 40 percent figure remains relevant. Even if the stat is lower, doing a background check on all commercial gun sales, with an exemption for friends and family, seems like good public policy.

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