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Do Background Checks for Gun Purchases Actually Work?

With so much case study available, you would think advocates could show us more convincing evidence.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

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March 29, 2013 - 12:16 am
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I have been curious regarding how little effort the gun-control crowd has been exerting to prove that mandatory background checks work. There are, after all, six states that require all-private party sales to go through a background check, and ten states that require it for all handgun purchases. If driven to advocate for mandatory checks, you would think the case studies of these sixteen states must have provided plenty of evidence that such laws reduce murder rates, and thus affected your decision. Right?

I found this testimony to the U.S. Senate by Dr. Daniel Webster, a public health professor, from a few weeks back – he claims that Missouri’s repeal of its permit-to-purchase law (which required police approval of all firearms purchases) increased murder rates. His testimony claims that the increase was directly tied to the repeal of the law:

In 2008, the first full year after the permit-to-purchase licensing law was repealed, the age-adjusted firearm homicide rate in Missouri increased sharply to 6.23 per 100,000 population, a 34 percent increase.

That is a pretty startling increase, but several aspects of the claim made me start sniffing the air for fertilizer.

First of all, notice that this claim includes only firearms homicides. People stabbed to death don’t matter? It turns out that while Missouri’s murder rates (from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports) did indeed rise from 2007 to 2008, it was a 24% increase, which while still disturbing, is not as disturbing as 34%.

Secondly, when public-health specialists talk about “firearms homicides,” they do not necessarily mean criminal acts. The Centers for Disease Control database, which both Dr. Webster and I are using, has two different categories for intentional killing of another person with a firearm: “homicides,” and “legal interventions.” It is very clear that at least some of the deaths in the “firearms homicides” category are not crimes, but lawful uses of deadly force. The number of “legal intervention” firearms homicides deaths is so low — 45 from 1999 through 2010 for Missouri[1] — that it almost certainly represents only police officer killings, and does not properly include other legal interventions.

A longstanding problem with murder statistics is that some defensive killings are initially charged as murder or non-negligent manslaughter, and are reported to the FBI and CDC as such. A startling number of defensive gun uses are only reclassified days, weeks, or even months later, as the criminal justice system slowly works its way to an answer. At least with the FBI’s data, if that reclassification does not happen before the calendar month is over, it stays on the books as a murder or manslaughter.

I suspect that the same is true for CDC’s data. While there is an element of misfortune when a rapist or armed robber gets shot to death, this is hardly the tragedy that Dr. Webster’s testimony brings to mind when you read “firearms homicide.”

Thirdly, how “sharply” did the repeal of the “permit-to-purchase” law in August of 2007 increase firearms homicides? In other words, was it immediate and thus more likely tied to the repeal?

Here’s a graph of firearms homicides from CDC’s data for 2007 and 2008, by month[2]:

It took eight months before the “sharp” increase took place.

So perhaps the repeal of the law in August 2007 is not related to the increase.

St. Louis Public Radio ran a series of programs in late 2008 specifically about the increase in gang violence — including murders — that had lately plagued the city.

Perhaps this is the real cause. Of course, it is possible that the gangs had been unable to obtain guns before the repeal of the permit-to-purchase law, but forgive my skepticism in not buying that the gangs waited eight months to take advantage of the new law.

Fourthly, when I look at the rate for all murders and non-negligent manslaughters (the data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program), I find that the increase in murder rates (not just with those icky guns, but with knives, fists, and other weapons) is not quite as impressive as the 34% figure Dr. Webster used.

In the four years after the law was in effect (2008-2011), Missouri had a murder rate 10% higher than the period 1999-2007. And again: the FBI’s murder rates include at least some killings later determined to be lawful use of force. It is possible that some of the apparent increase in murders was because easier access to firearms meant more dead rapists, robbers, and murderers; at this point, we really do not have enough data to know for sure:

The most serious problem with the testimony: the increase in murder rates is not statistically significant at the 95% confidence level commonly used in the social sciences.[3]

Thus, it could be entirely coincidence that murder rates rose starting in 2008.

It is possible that the repeal of the permit-to-purchase law increased murder rates, but with the data now available, it is more likely a coincidence.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Back in the day the Russians called that document your Communist Party Membership card. One might reasonably suspect the Democrats would move in the same direction here if a "background check" card became a universal requirement for jobs, gun buying, etc.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All the time people on the right fall for this - the left doesn't care if something works or not, they care if it accomplishes their goal.

Which in this case is to discourage gun ownership by making it more difficult to buy and sell them, or really, to essentially ban private sales of guns by law abiding folks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (19)
All Comments   (19)
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Everybody here that thinks criminals will submit to a background checks... raise your hands.

ROFLMAO
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The "background check" is a fake issue. It's what is done with the check after it is done. We'd have no problem with a background check on a man convicted for murder preventing him from buying/acquiring an assault rifle. But, what will eventually happen is that background checks will result in folks being prohibited from buying/acquiring guns for political reasons only, e.g., "he contributed to the Palin campaign 2008."
Maybe, the death panels can also decide who is allowed to have guns!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh, you mean like teachers, doctors, barbers and other professional occupation licenses have eventually become deniable based on political reasons?

I get it now -- NOT!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
NO! The crux of the problem(s) surrounding the gun debate is the "source" of guns going to the criminals and the mentally infirmed. Street purchases is NOT the origin source unless, legal gun owners are selling on the streets. A burglar is NOT the origin of source either! A burglar however, is going to one major access source! Start looking at ways to effectively plug up the origin source(s). Legal gun ownership found to be 'reckless' and 'irrespnsible' gun ownership might well get the debate headed in the right directions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
NO = under the greater context of the current, largely non complied with gun ownership system and the legislative debate of today. As a part of new reformed gun ownership system an 'enhanced' background requirement would be a very effective and major component.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't need to study the data any further. I've looked it at over the 40 years I've been politically aware. I know what the left is selling and if I want any I'll get some from a farmer who raises cattle. It will smell better and be far more useful.

We need to stop mincing words and worrying about what people think. They are fricking communists. They weant an elite few members of their party to control every aspect of our lives. Period.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Problem: All police dramas show almost all guns found being quickly traced back to the "registered" owner. So it's understandable that the sheople, who no longer have any knowlege of our history and rights. Thus universal background checks and gun registration seem like "commmon------------sense". Sorry for the delay. It's reached a point where the phrases "common-----------sense" and "do it for the-------------children" leave me with a stunning fear. As though Nazis and Stalinists were stepping on my grave.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Whether background checks work or not is not the issue. Just exactly what about "THIS RIGHT TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS 'SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED' DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND??
Background checks, License to purchase, or any other BS is an Infringement on the righrt of the Citizen to Keep and Bear Arms to protect himself from a Gvoernment gone completely nuts and that is exactly where we are headed.
This Communist Progressive bunch of fools in the government are completely out of control and we will soon be at the doorstep of a revolution if we do not get some control over Obama and his thugs.
Yes, it is worderful that Obama was able to steal the last election for his peep,s but now we are headed down the sewer of finance with his leadership and it is not going to be a pleasant trip for America.
Get ready for trouble as this ship of state is either going to founder on the rocks of reality or the adults in the Nation are going to have to start acting like real grownups and save the Nation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Background checks, in and of themselves are more of an aggravation than an impingement of the right to bear arms. IF, the records of a background check are destroyed after having served their purpose, many people could support them. The problem for any thinking person is the retention of the records so the goverrnment knows exactly who owns what. One need not be paranoid to believe that this would be a giant step in the process of gun confiscation. The beauty of the 2nd Amendment is that some people are armed but the government doesn't know who they are.

If the anti-gun people were serious, they would see that a comprehensive plan might include background checks with no permanent record. But for these activists to rally for gun-control while ignoring the facts of a coarsening of our society, there is "no right and wrong", hooray for me screw you attitude, violence in electronic games and popular entertainment. breakdown in family values, indoctrination vs education in schools, one parent homes and on and on, we cannot compromise with the anti gun activists to do anything.

All too often, polititians want to be seen as "doing something" about the problem whether or not it makes sense. They want to ban scary looking weapons which will have no impact on the slaughter in Chicago and some other urban hell-holes. The above problem also meshes with the Left's very obvious desire for more power and watering down our Constitutional rights. Until some persons on the Left start talking "common sense" as viewed objectively, those of us who cherish our God given rights cannot afford to "compromise" in any way.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Paranoia, a registered mental illness, is paranaoia whether one fears the devil is out to get control of his life OR the government is coming to take his guns.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I know what you mean Zeke. I use to be paranoid that the government was going to start ignoring the constitution, raising taxes above 50%, giving its own employees lavish pay, pensions and benefits while steadily destroying opportunity for the private middle class, putting 50 million people on food stamps, taking control of the health sector even though it can hardly run a bake sale without mucking things up, letting 20 million people cross the border and then badgering its citizens into granting them amnesty in order to solidify their control of government. Now I realize it was just all paranoia on my part. And thank you for your scholarly opinion that this is a "registered mental illness" . Has someone registered the mental illness of "the endless sycophantic regurgitation of totalitarian talking points". Get back to us on that one.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You should seek professional help! Seriously!

The delusion that every day and every year is going to be precisely perfect as you expect or demand it to be is...........(return to the beginning of the sentence).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Here, here.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As someone who went through this process, called "Permit to transfer a concealable firearm," to buy his first pistol, (it did not apply to long guns), it was a joke. Mr. Cramer above makes good points, but the easiest rebuttal is that I never heard of as much as one person in this state being criminally charged for not filling out the "permit to transfer" upon acquiring a handgun. IOW, it was never enforced. And and it's not as if not filling out the paperwork could not have been proven in court -- The sheriff's office for the relevant county kept a copy of such completed permits.

Here is what the "permit to transfer" entailed:

http://countenance.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/am-i-reading-this-correctly/

Legally, you had to fill out the permit if you wanted to sell, loan, give or rent out any firearm with a barrel length under 20 inches ("concealable," under Missouri law). And as the paperwork plainly stated, that permit was not a conceal-carry permit, even though it used the word "conceal." A CCW permit was an entirely separate process.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All the time people on the right fall for this - the left doesn't care if something works or not, they care if it accomplishes their goal.

Which in this case is to discourage gun ownership by making it more difficult to buy and sell them, or really, to essentially ban private sales of guns by law abiding folks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment


Here's an idea to help allay the concerns of those us that believe that guns should, to the extent that they can, be kept from those that are not stable or have forfeited their right through their actions but whose ownership otherwise is not the government's business.

A 'background check' becomes something that you have done at your convenience. You can actually do different levels of them on the internet now. Develop one with a level for firearms purchase.

The 'potential' buyer then applies for it. If granted it's carried with them much like a drivers license or passport. It would be "good" for some amount of time to be determined. Now they can use it for anything that requires one...employment, firearms purchase etc. The background check then wouldn't be needed at the point of sale.

The firearms dealer or private seller are assured that the purchaser has a clear background and may make the sale in confidence. Whether or not you ever use your certification is up to you just like you can have a passport and never use it for foreign travel.

I suppose this proposal would be met with derision and a thousand reasons why it 'wouldn't work' but proposing it would expose the core objective of those advocating the UBC. Do they want to limit the sale of guns to the unstable or criminal or, in addition, is their objective to 'know where the guns are'?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And just exactly what do you not understand about 'Shall not be Infringed' moron.
When you start playing this Progressive game you are a damn fool, do not give an inch, do not comply with any BS. You are a Citizen of the Nation and you cannot be prosecuted for what is your Constitutional Right!! Push back at every spot that you can and we the citizens will win this fight.....
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Back in the day the Russians called that document your Communist Party Membership card. One might reasonably suspect the Democrats would move in the same direction here if a "background check" card became a universal requirement for jobs, gun buying, etc.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If you drive a commercial vehicle, work at an airport or keep an airplane in the secured area of an airport, on the docks, on a vessel for hire you already have the card that says you're a member. It's called a Commercial Driver's License (CDL), your Transportation Worker Identity Credential (TWIC), or your Mervhant Mariner's Credential, for which you also have to have a TWIC. You probably have to get a background check for a pilot's license in addition to the one for a TWIC if you enter secured airport areas. You get a background check, get finger printed, duly added to the data base, the whol nine yards. You can also see the friendly folks at TSA and get a Trusted Traveller ID. You get fingerprinted, digitally photographed for biometrics, and get a background check so that you go to the head of the line and can leave your shoes on and such at some airports, not all have the Trusted Traveller kiosk yet. It's a brave new world.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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