Gun control has been at the forefront of American debate for years, and with good reason: As an NPR report from late last year points out, the U.S. has the 28th highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world — far greater than the world’s other wealthy nations.
And on a state-by-state basis, this rate can be even higher. In Louisiana, for example, the rate is nearly three times the national average.
The Giffords Law Center breaks this down even further: Roughly 36,000 gun fatalities occur in the U.S. each year, with an average of 100,000 people falling victim to gun-related injuries.
While mass shootings only make up around 1% of these figures, it’s these high-mortality incidents in particular that have brought a wave of attention to the gun violence epidemic, and have many citizens demanding legislative action.
But will implementing laws to further limit access to firearms be the solution we’re all looking for?
After all, don’t we already have such systems in place, and don’t the perpetrators keep finding their ways to weapons nevertheless?
The Federal Background Check System
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 mandates that all federally licensed firearms dealers run background checks for firearm purchases.
Initially, a five-day waiting period was imposed to allow enough time for background checks to be completed by local law enforcement, but the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in 1998 made it possible for firearms dealers to inquire about records immediately. (It only takes about 107.5 seconds to get a response.)
If no information is found regarding criminal records, restraining orders, history of drug and alcohol abuse, or hospitalization for mental health issues, the transaction is processed without delay.
However, not all states require background checks for private party sales (sales made by those “not engaged in the business of”), such as sales made at gun shows or through websites by unlicensed sellers.
What the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 (HR 8) would do is require most private firearms sales and transfers to also go through the same background check process as those made by licensed sellers.
Though such a move is essentially a non-starter in today’s hyper-partisan political climate — HR8 passed the House last February, but has yet to be voted on in the Senate — a new study from the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research suggests this may indeed be a step in the right direction, though not the solution in and of itself. (Get the full report below.)
Research shows,” the authors write in the executive summary, “that these so-called comprehensive background check (CBC) laws curtail the diversion of guns for criminal use.”
They haven’t, however, “resulted in significant reductions in firearm-related deaths.”
When Background Checks Fail
As it turns out, the FBI is missing millions of records needed to perform adequate background checks on potential gun purchasers.
Former FBI Director James Comey admitted that Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of the 2015 mass shooting in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, should not have been able to purchase a firearm; he had confessed to drug possession after an arrest months earlier.
Since the details of this case were not available in NICS — just the fact that he had been recently arrested — the FBI initially declined to authorize the purchase so they could investigate his background further. But due to what essentially comes down to a technicality, they were unable to track down the relevant information and failed to deliver a response within the federally sanctioned three-day window.
Because Mr. Roof had been arrested in a small part of Columbia that is in Lexington County and not in Richland County, where most of the city is,” the New York Times reported, “the [FBI] examiner was confused about which police department to call. She ultimately did not find the right department and failed to obtain the police report.”
Roof returned to the gun dealer on the fourth day and made the purchase.
A similar situation occurred with Devin P. Kelley, who killed 26 people in a shooting at a Texas church in 2017.
Kelley had been court-marshaled by the Air Force years earlier for domestic violence against his wife and son. The Air Force, however, failed to enter his eventual conviction into the NICS database, even though it is obligated to do so by law. Had they complied, Kelley would not have been able to purchase a firearm.
Then there’s the issue of the people who fall in the grey — those who have no criminal record or documented history of mental health issues, but are dangerous nonetheless. Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting in history, had no such red flags in his background.
And unfortunately, comprehensive background checks also do little to deter “straw purchases” — when someone purchases a firearm for someone else who would not have been able to pass. As we now know, this is how the perpetrators of the San Bernadino mass shooting in 2015 gained possession of their weapons.
Because “most states do not require background checks or record keeping for private transfers,” the study authors explain, “the transfer from the straw purchaser to a prohibited possessor bears little risk or cost to the straw purchaser.”
How Licensing Works
The research suggests, though, that licensing requirements on top of these background checks may just be what’s needed to catch those who fall through the cracks.
Currently, there are no federal laws that require the licensing of gun owners or purchasers. There are, however, 14 states, and Washington D.C., that have their own licensing laws for all or some firearms, whether it be through permits to purchase, licenses to own, firearm safety certifications and registration laws that have licensing requirements.
And according to the CDC, as of 2017, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island (in that order), which are part of these 14 states, have the lowest gun-related fatalities per year of all the 50 states.
In Hawaii, for example, in order to obtain a gun, you must first apply for a permit from your county chief of police. You will be fingerprinted and photographed for a criminal background check and must sign a sworn affidavit asserting your mental health and the absence of a drug or alcohol addiction and criminal record.
You must also authorize the release of your medical history and provide the contact information for your primary physician, if available. Your doctor is then required to hand over any information relevant to firearm acquisition.
If after all this, no information surfaces that would disqualify you from obtaining a permit, your application is approved, though you have to wait 14 days to receive the permit.
If an applicant does not pick up their permit within six days of the conclusion of the initial 14-day wait period, then the permit is voided and the applicant must reapply. Permits for purchasing handguns have to be used within 10 days of being issued, and permits for shotguns and rifles are valid for a year.
Firearms are further required to be registered with an owner’s county police within five days of acquisition. Only law enforcement and military personal are permitted to conceal or openly carry guns in public.
Massachusetts has a similar process for owning guns, where a license to carry (LTC) or a firearm identification card (FID) is required first, though the willful release of medical history and the signing of affidavits are not.
Instead, a person must first take and complete a firearm safety course, then submit an application with their local police department with proof of course completion. They must also provide a fingerprint.
After that, the police department runs a check on the applicant with NICS, as well as the state’s Department of Mental Health, the Department of Probation and various state and national criminal justice information services, including those that record and track protection orders. The whole process can take up to 90 days.
According to the researchers, when Missouri repealed its gun licensing law in 2007, there was a 16.1% increase in suicides by gun and a 25% increase in gun homicides.
Conversely, when Connecticut implemented their own gun licensing law, its gun homicide rate dropped by 40% and gun suicides by 15.4%.
While it’s difficult to point to definitive cause and effect here, “preliminary estimates suggest that the protective effects of licensing on firearm homicides actually depends on the requirement for in-person applications,” the researchers note.
There’s also a strong suggestion that because such lengthy processes stop would-be buyers from making impulsive purchases in the heat of the moment, this “allows for transitory feelings to pass and reduces the chance of purchasers using the gun to harm themselves or others.”
For more information about the study and these results, download the full report below.
About the Author
Kenny Sokan is a freelance writer at EfficientGov. She is a strong believer in the power of information and creative expression, which guides her in all of the work that she does. Kenny is a graduate of Northeastern University with a BA in journalism.
Read “The Impact of Handgun Purchaser Licensing on Gun Violence”: