Monday, January 21, 2013

Universal background checks for gun purchases

James Alan Fox, criminologist at Northeastern University and an expert on mass shootings, notes that "most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization," so "they would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally." And if they were, he adds, "mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends."

Nevertheless, Barrack Obama, and others, have proposed a "universal background check" be required for all transfers of firearms. There is also a call from some for a background check on all ammunition transfers.

Federal law (18 USC § 922(d)) already prohibits certain persons from possessing firearms and ammunition. These persons include felons, persons adjudicated mentally incompetent, drug abusers, illegal immigrants, etc. It is also unlawful to transfer a firearm or ammunition to these restricted persons.

It therefore is incumbent upon anyone selling, loaning, gifting, or otherwise transferring a firearm or ammunition to another person to take reasonable steps to ensure the transferee is not a restricted person. Failure to do so subjects both persons to severe penalties -- up to 10 years in federal prison.

Because of this already-existing restriction on the transfer of firearms, I see no need to require any form of "universal background check" on firearm transfers between responsible persons.

Mandatory universal background checks would impose unnecessary and unreasonable costs and inconvenience on transactions where the transferor already knows the history and character of the transferee such as a father and son or friend to friend.

Jurisdictions that already impose "universal background checks" do not have a better record of keeping guns out of the hands of violent persons than do other jurisdictions. In fact, jurisdictions with mandatory universal background checks often have higher rates of violent crime!

One argument in favor of "universal background checks" is to close the so-called "gun-show loophole." Most firearms purchased at gun shows are dealer transactions with already-mandated background checks. A few firearms are sold at gun shows in private non-dealer transactions. These latter transactions are generally not subject to background checks. While these transactions are still subject to the above cites prohibition on the sale of firearms to restricted persons, it is very rare for a gun-show firearms to be later used in a crime.

Criminals generally get their guns by theft, from other criminals, through illegal straw-purchasers, and a few corrupt dealers -- very rarely at gun shows or other legal transfers. The persons involved are already committing a crime under current law. They are not, and will not be, deterred by current law nor will their acquisition of firearms be affected by a new and largely unenforceable "universal background check." No reasonable person would believe that criminals would obey any new law mandating a "universal background check" for their black-market trade in firearms. Such a law would only affect responsible persons, so what's the point?

I can foresee that a universal background check requirement could inadvertently (or by sinister design) impose severe penalties on someone like me who serves as an instructor for various gun safety courses including Hunter Education and a 4-H youth shooting club since I often allow my students to borrow and shoot my personal firearms during their training.

Anyone who has ever smoked a joint gives up his right claim that imposing more regulation on responsible gun buyers and gun owners will have any effect on the behavior of violent criminals.

Current law is more than sufficient in managing the legal non-dealer transfer of firearms. Any effort to impose any form of universal background check must be rejected. If such a law is introduced, I demand that it exempt the following (unless there is reasonable belief that the transferee is a restricted person):
· family members and close friends
· temporary use of borrowed firearms by participants in a course of shooting instruction, members of a shooting club, or at an established shooting range
· transactions where the transferee possesses a government-issued firearm permit
· other persons with evidence of a current criminal background check (eg law enforcement officers, school teachers, members of the Armed Forces)

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