Does A Universal Background Check Law Do Anything?

universal background check laws

One type of "gun control" legislation that gets discussed occasionally is that of universal background checks. Under a universal background check law, any and every gun purchase requires the purchaser to undergo a background check. This applies to store sales and private sales alike, including at gun shows.

As you can imagine, there is a certain amount of controversy around them. It makes buying a gun in some instances a real hassle, and you can't give one as a gift.

A few states have a universal background check law, which means there is some information to draw on to see if they are effective. ARE universal background checks effective? Let's find out.

Universal Background Checks Today

how modern gun background checks work

The one form of "gun control" that a large cross-section of Americans have voiced support for in years of polling is universal background checks. Put simply, a universal background check law requires any purchase or transfer of a firearm from one party to another to involve a background check.

Buying from a gun store? Background check. Buying used guns from a pawn shop? Buying from a friend, relative or classified ad? Background check. Private sale at a gun show? Background check.

They create hassle, no doubt about it.

Currently, universal background check laws exist in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington state and Washington D.C., which doesn't have the same quality of coffee and beer as Washington state. Additionally, Maryland has a universal background check law for purchase or transfer of handguns and "assault rifles," and Pennsylvania has a universal background check law for handguns only.

A few other states have toyed with the idea. There are also a few states that require a person to get a firearms owner ID card (or FOID) that requires a background check to obtain, but purchases after getting the card may or may not (depends on the state) require an additional background check. In other words, such states have a de facto universal background check.

With that all said, what have they done?

Universal Background Check Laws And Correlation vs Causality

have the universal background checks on guns worked

So, since a few states have them and more people seem to be for them than in opposition, have universal background check laws worked?

The truth is that it's a mixed bag. They likely have SOME effect, but are not a panacea.

To know if a law works, there has to be a reduction in the type of crime the law aims to prevent because of said law. Universal background checks must therefore reduce gun crimes committed by people who commit a violent crime after purchasing a gun through legal means.

Some studies have examined the matter. A literature review (a summation of available studies) by the RAND Corporation found some evidence that background checks overall reduce some violent crime/gun crime, but not to an incredible degree.

The hitch, of course, is that universal background checks really only affect private sales and gun show sales. All sales through a dealer require a background check because anyone holding a Federal Firearms License (FFL), whether it's a dealer or curio and relic license, is mandated to run a background check before transferring a firearm to anyone, regardless of whether they work through a store, out of the home, or if they're at a gun show.

RAND researchers couldn't conclude requiring background checks on private sales had any effect.

A few other studies have shown some effects, though, or at least have shown a basis for a universal background check system to be effective.

The state of Missouri formerly had a permit-to-purchase law (you had to get a permit to buy a handgun from any source, which required a background check) which was repealed in 2007. According to the National Institutes of Health, the repeal of the law led to a 16 percent increase in homicides from 2007 to 2012, even after controlling for variables that normally influence homicide rates.

However, it should be noted that the study doesn't show how people committing said crimes actually got their guns. Many of the recovered firearms had been purchased legally. Ostensibly, the guns were purchased via straw buying, wherein one party legally buys a firearm and sells it or gives it to someone who couldn't buy one legally.

Similarly, Connecticut passed a permit-to-purchase law in 1995, which was followed by a 40 percent reduction in firearm homicides within the first 10 years, also according to the NIH. However, the study doesn't control for other factors influencing homicide rates and doesn't itemize the ways people committing homicides were getting their firearms.

The state also found through gun tracking that criminals had started importing black market firearms into Connecticut.

So, Universal Background Checks Kind of Work?

universal background checks on guns might work some of the time

It's fair to say that universal background checks might work sometimes, but how much or how well is impossible to say. There's no way to reliably state, to a certainty, that these laws are always the reason for a reduction in firearm homicides or firearms-related crime.

It is more accurate to say that they precluded a private sale to someone who was going to perpetrate a crime or for some people from straw-buying or selling or giving a gun to someone who would.

How many, though? That's almost impossible to nail down. You'd have to find people willing to say "You know, I was totally gonna murder Jeff over there but I wasn't able to pass a background check for the gun!" For obvious reasons, no one will be finding that out.

In fairness, studies have consistently found criminals commonly get guns through straw buyers (such as Eric Holder) or by buying or borrowing guns from friends and family members rather than through legal channels. On paper, a universal check outlaws these kinds of sales...not that it stops either side of the equation.

Ultimately, no gun control law will ever add up to anything more than a marginal reduction in firearm violence. Criminals are determined to commit crimes, and violent crime has many different causes. There's no panacea out there for it.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author


Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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