Background Checks for Gun Purchases Empower Criminals

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Background Checks for Gun Purchases Empower Criminals

by Ari Armstrong, December 19, 1999

Those who favor more restrictions on the purchase of firearms lay out a very simple case: the more the government regulates gun sales and checks the background of gun purchasers, the fewer criminals will get guns and use them in violent acts, thus reducing crime over-all.

The case is seductively simple, and in fact over-simplified and flat wrong. The disarmament lobby dramatically over-states the impact of restrictive laws on criminals, and it utterly ignores the impact of restrictive laws on honest citizens who want to purchase a gun for self-defense. Thus, laws restricting gun purchases actually increase crime over-all by disarming victims and empowering criminals.

That guns are used more often in self-defense than in the commission of a crime is well-established. Gary Kleck writes in his book Targeting Guns that "defensive gun uses by crime victims are three to four times more common than crimes committed with guns, and victim gun use is associated with lower rates of assault or robbery" (184). According to Kleck, armed civilians defend themselves against crime as many as 2.5 million times per year. In his exhaustive study, John Lott has found, "When state concealed-handgun laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by about 8 percent, rapes fell by 5 percent, and aggravated assaults fell by 7 percent" (More Guns, Less Crime, 51).

In addition, Lott has found that some disarmament laws have actually increased crime by preventing honest citizens from purchasing guns for self-defense. For instance, Lott writes, "No statistically significant evidence has appeared that the Brady law has reduced crime, and there is some statistically significant evidence that rates for rape and aggravated assault have actually risen by about 4 percent relative to what they would have been without the law" (162). The most plausible causal explanation for this is that the Brady law has prevented women and other potential victims from purchasing a gun for self-defense.

Those who favor more restrictive laws for gun purchases often trap themselves in static modes of thinking. Currently, some purchases at gun shows, those involving "private dealers," do not require background checks. The disarmament lobby is fond of quoting statistics showing how often guns from shows are used in crime. But if X number of guns from shows are used per year in crime, does that imply that laws mandating universal background checks at shows will reduce the number of crimes by X? Hardly.

Currently, many criminals attempt to purchase guns even at stores, simply because they have a chance of slipping through the background check, and to date little effort has been made to prosecute the unlawful attempt to purchase a gun. Thus, a person with criminal intent can attempt to purchase a gun at a store and bear essentially zero risk. (This will change if the laws are enforced.) The worst thing that now happens to a criminal who fails a background check is that he or she has to purchase a gun elsewhere.

Many criminals undoubtedly seek to buy a gun from a less-regulated gun show. However, there is no reason to believe that criminals will simply give up their search for a gun if background checks are mandated for all purchases at gun shows. Instead, the criminals will purchase their guns from unregulated private sellers outside of gun shows or they will steal the guns or buy them on the black-market. If the regulations are carried far enough, garage gun manufacturing will become common place.

Of course, some criminals are a few grains short of a full load, so they might still attempt to pass a background check even if doing so starts to carry criminal penalties. But these are not the criminals as likely to have the intelligence to carry out their plans anyway. For the most part, the claim that background checks, even if strongly enforced, will catch or deter criminals trying to purchase guns, is farfetched.

This analysis pertains only to criminals who already carry a felony record. Background checks do nothing to stop one-time criminals from buying a gun and using it in a single act of violence. Nor do background checks hinder career criminals who have never been caught for their crimes.

Background checks at gun stores, to the extent that they are enforced, push criminals to purchase guns at less-regulated gun shows. If background checks are extended to gun shows, this will push criminals to purchase guns from private dealers outside of gun shows. If background checks are then universally imposed, criminals will resort to stealing guns or buying them on the black-market.

The disarmament lobby probably predicts this as well. First, the disarmament lobby called for background checks at stores, now it seeks to close the "loophole" of private dealers at gun shows, next it will seek to close the "loophole" of private dealers everywhere. Then, because criminals will still steal guns and buy them on the black-market, the disarmament lobby will finally call for complete registration of all guns in America. Criminals will still get guns, though, and even the final solution to the gun-owner problem, confiscation and imprisonment of the civilly disobedient, will fail to thwart criminal use of guns.

Let us turn to the effects of gun restriction laws on the honest citizen. The first point to be noted is that laws like background checks rarely affect the safety of gun enthusiasts, who often already own numerous firearms and are able to purchase and sell guns with their friends, largely unregulated by law. Restrictive purchasing laws most affect those who do not own any firearms but who are in imminent danger of criminal attack. For instance, a threatening ex-husband or ex-boyfriend might prompt a woman to purchase her first gun.

Laws like mandatory background checks reduce the supply of firearms, because many dealers will close shop rather than deal with the added hassles. Such laws also increase the costs associated with selling a gun, requiring the valuable time of both the purchaser and the seller. The net effect is that the price of guns -- in terms of dollars, time, and hassle -- goes up.

This is especially true for those who are wrongfully denied permission to purchase a gun. In Colorado, CBI automatically refuses permission based merely on arrest record, even if no criminal charges were ever filed. Faced with the prospects of proving him or herself innocent by obtaining court documents, a process which can take days or weeks, many would-be gun buyers simply give up.

Let us take up again the example of a violent ex-husband. If such a man threatens his ex-wife with violence, the woman may think the husband is just blustering, not really serious, or she may think he is serious indeed. Probably the woman has some intuitive feel for how likely the ex-husband is to attempt violence. The woman also probably has some feel for how likely the ex-husband is to actually inflict harm. A big, husky man with martial arts training is a greater threat than a 90-pound weakling. Also, the woman's physical strength impacts the likelihood of the ex-husband attacking. Based on her assessments of the risk, the woman will decide whether the costs of a gun are worth it. The higher the price of the gun, the less likely is the woman to buy it. But failure to buy, of course, increases the woman's risk of being harmed or killed.

We might also consider the risks of rape. Some women face a greater risk of rape than others, though every woman faces some risk. Again, the decision to purchase a gun will depend upon both the perceived risk of rape and the costs of a gun. (Of course this analysis is simplified; women also consider the availability of other weapons and their personal comfort level with firearms.)

The point is, any increase in the cost or hassle of buying a gun will affect the decisions of the marginal buyer. Because gun ownership helps protect lawful citizens against criminals, a decrease in the purchase of guns will lead to an increase in victimization.

Criminals are not nearly as deterred by higher gun prices as are lawful citizens. For the lawful citizen, the use of a gun against a criminal is only a possible occurrence, not an expected one. In other words, the value of a gun, for the lawful person, is perceived before-hand to be dependent on the probability of actually using the gun against a criminal.

The criminal, on the other hand, already knows he or she desires to use the gun for a specific purpose. (We'll assume this is the case, for if the criminal doesn't intend to use the gun for a crime then the issue of prohibiting the purchase is moot, in terms of public safety.) Thus, the usefulness of the gun, for the criminal, is certain. For most criminals, then, not even great differences in gun prices will affect the decision to purchase a gun.

Neither is a criminal much deterred by obtaining a gun illegally through theft or the black-market. Again assuming a person has already decided to commit a crime, the risk of legal penalties has already been accepted. The additional risk of obtaining a gun through illegal means is a relatively minor one.

There is one way that restrictive gun laws can result in fewer criminals buying guns, however. The Australian government legally required the confiscation of most guns there in 1996. In the following two years, gun-related homicides fell by about 4%. However, in the first year the total number of homicides increased by 3.2%. (In addition, assaults were up 8.6%, armed-robberies were up 44%, unarmed robberies were up 21%, unlawful entries are were 3.9%, and motor vehicle thefts were up 6.1%.) The most plausible causal explanation for this phenomenon is that, with fewer lawful citizens armed, criminals felt safe resorting to knives, bats, and other more primitive weaponry. Over-all, criminals gained the upper-hand against lawful citizens, even though criminals used fewer guns to commit their crimes.

The lesson to be drawn from this, a point both simple and sound, is that laws such as those aimed at expanding mandatory background checks tend to make very little impact on the behavior of criminals, but a significant impact on the actions of lawful citizens. With a view to both sides of the equation, the impacts on both criminals and victims, laws restricting the rights of gun purchasers are positively harmful.

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