When Dangerous People Want Guns

Trigger finger.

Photographer: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

The centerpiece of President Barack Obama's latest proposals to limit gun violence is better oversight of gun sellers. This is necessary and overdue, but the people on the other side of the counter also deserve more attention.

Gun buyers from federally licensed dealers must undergo background checks, which are designed to screen out felons, fugitives and anyone who has been committed to a mental institution. Since 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has blocked more than 2.4 million guns from being sold to such people. On Tuesday, Obama announced a broader definition of who, exactly, is "in the business" of selling firearms -- and thus required to conduct criminal background checks.

The theory behind background checks is straightforward: Some people with guns pose significantly higher risks -- to society and themselves -- than others. Republicans and Democrats generally agree such prohibitions are necessary. But more research is needed to know how meaningful they are, and what other categories of people might pose equally unacceptable risks.

Evidence is growing. According to the American Psychological Association, the best predictor of future gun violence is "a history of violent behavior." A domestic abuser or stalker with no convictions, for example, may be a far more dangerous gun risk than a felonious swindler.

There are other risk factors besides a history of domestic violence. Research indicates that people with a history of violent misdemeanors are more likely to engage in violent behavior after purchasing a gun. Another risk factor is having multiple convictions related to alcohol or illegal drugs.

Additional research into gun violence can lead to strategies beyond the typical reach of law enforcement. Researchers have found an elevated risk of firearm violence among youth who received emergency-room treatment for an assault, for instance. Emergency-room interventions could curtail teens' desire for violent retaliation.

America's gun debate often seems as stuck as its gun politics. Political culture changes incrementally, but more and better information can quickly change a debate. All sides would benefit from more reliable data about risks, and less ambiguous evidence about solutions.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.