Background Checks Work

Gun ShowRecently the US Senate fell short of passing the most reasonable gun control measure ever brought to the Congressional floor by six votes (54 votes — just a few shy of blocking a filibuster).  The legislation was centered on closing background check loopholes involving private sellers at gun shows and through online sales.  The legislation would not create a national registry of gun owners (although this was the main point of the disinformation campaign of the NRA), nor did it ban any specific weapon or magazines.  The legislation was written by a bi-partisan senatorial duo, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin, and was supported by 85%-90% of American citizens according to every major poll.

Currently there is a background check system in place that is used by all licensed sellers.  In the past year there were 150,000 firearm applicants denied.  Since 1994 a staggering 1.9 million applicants have been rejected.  These applicants were denied because of mental illness, criminal record, drug usage, illegal alien status, domestic abuse, and various other reasons.  Even more telling, only 1% of all firearm rejections are ever appealed; revealing the applicant always complied with the verdict.

Even in the face of such overwhelming data I have heard opinions from several friends that background checks do not work, and a criminal will find a way to purchase a gun regardless of laws.  This same type of argument was used against The Brady Bill in 1994 in regards to waiting periods.  President Ronald Reagan responded “Critics claim that ‘waiting period’ legislation in the states that have it doesn’t work, that criminals just go to nearby states that lack such laws to buy their weapons. True enough, and all the more reason to have a Federal law that fills the gaps.”  Background check legislation, like the Brady Bill legislation, is designed to “fill the gaps.”

It appears that Congress has fallen for the faulty logic of the opposition.  While I agree with critics that motivated criminals will find ways around laws, they will have a tougher time navigating market dynamics.  If background checks prohibit a single purchase, the price of firearms will rise for those unable to go through licensed sellers.  A criminal will have to find a different way to acquire a weapon than from an online seller or an unlicensed dealer at a gun show.  Expanding background checks will also facilitate responsible sales between family, friends, and acquaintances.  These constraints on the supply will have negative pressure on price, and increase the risk of a potential gun buyer being caught through illicit acquisition.

If opponents to background check legislation believe that any such law is inefficient and impacts our second amendment rights, would they be willing to support a total repeal of all background checks?  Highly unlikely.  Why? Because opposing this legislation has little to do with the implied efficacy of the law or the second amendment, and more to do with political ideology.  Background check legislation died with the divisive spirit of our representatives, who would rather shoot themselves in the foot than shake hands in the center.


  1. Matthew, I am not a member of the NRA and I do not always agree with their positions but I am a fan of logic and I am not sure that I follow yours so please help me. You say, as you conclude your piece, that “I agree with critics that motivated criminals will find ways around laws” but with this legislation in place “they will have a tougher time navigating market dynamics” and it will “increase the risk of a potential gun buyer being caught through illicit acquisition.” By their very nature don’t criminals worry less about market dynamics and price? As well, I doubt that if they were worried about getting “caught” that they would be where they are to begin with. I am only assuming, but most criminals probably operate from the place that they will not get caught to begin with, regardless of what they do or how they do it. Finally, one could infer from this that you might feel that all “family, friends and acquaintances” have not been conducting themselves responsibly at this time if it will take this legislation to help them do so. Are you suggesting that law abiding “family, friends and acquaintances” have not be responsible or only their criminal counterpart?

  2. Great questions Jary — let me clarify…

    Anytime you close down a legal avenue, supply and demand is impacted. If I am a criminal and can buy a gun online or through an unlicensed gun show dealer — I am probably paying market price. However — if those avenues are closed I will have a harder time finding the “supply”. I will have to go through more illicit channels (black market) to purchase a weapon (most criminals don’t steal the guns they use)and will have to pay a premium for the transaction (the seller takes on more risk and passes that cost onto the purchaser). Furthermore these types of black market transactions are under much more scrutiny from the law (think Fast and Furious) and we have significant resources to stop the illegal trading of firearms (again — more risk).

    Criminals worry about market dynamics and price, especially if the crime is theft or purchasing of contraband. What they steal has to fill a market value to obtain the income they need for whatever it is they are purchasing.

    My logic on family and friends is this — if they can pass a background check — whats the big deal? Sure it might make the process cumbersome — but the responsibility of being a gun owner should have checks and balances. If my uncle was to give me a gun, I might be upset about the extra steps with a background check — but given this country’s failing grade around gun violence and gun safety, its probably not a bad process to have.

  3. Matthew, first, what is your source for your claim that “most criminals don’t steal the guns they use?” I have certainly never heard that before and if true then our current laws need to be enforced before new ones are on the books. Second, black market transactions (of which Fast and Furious were not since the federal government oversaw and approved the transactions) by their very definition are under the radar of law enforcement so how is it that they can be under “much more scrutiny?’ If the transactions are scrutinized and they are illegal then again we need to enforce existing law and penalize the law breakers who ever they are before any new laws are considered and passed. What good are new laws if existing laws are not enforced?

  4. Great post. I’ve never understood opposition to background checks. Even SCOTUS reaffirmed the constitutionality of background checks when the overturned D.C. vs Heller. At the end of the day, you can still own firearms if you are a law-abiding citizen. This opposition has little to do with the 2nd Amendment and much to do with an ever-more-radical GOP.

  5. Please explain the gun show loophole. Private sales are not exclusive to gun shows, they are allowed statewide. Online sellers ship the gun to a licensed dealer where a background check is performed. I do not understand why we are talking about background checks when we already have background checks. What exactly am I missing?

  6. I would argue that most private sales avoid background checks. There has been a claim of 40% of all gun sales do not involve background checks — but I agree this might be on the aggressive side. The most recent survey we have on this subject is from Maryland in which 20% of gun buyers said they did not receive background checks when purchasing their weapons.

    From an anecdotal example — I bought my gun from a private seller (not at a gun show) and never had a background check.

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