Monday, February 17, 2014

What Missouri's background check repeal tells us about universal background checks

So we now have evidence to support the basic and blindingly obvious statement that background checks save lives. Will it make a difference to those who insist that background checks are futile? I don't know. My gut says that it will have about the same impact that reviewing the science on sticking your hand in open flame will have on someone determined to do it anyway, and for the same reason...there really isn't a good, rational way to get to the position in the first place, so what purpose will evidence serve? Maybe I'm just being cynical. Maybe the people who oppose background have just been waiting on proof that illustrates that keeping guns out of criminals' hands is actually a good way to keep criminals from shooting people. But I sort of doubt it.

Regardless, this is the bit that seems to be generating a lot of attention:
Missouri’s decision to repeal its law requiring all handgun purchasers to obtain a “permit-to-purchase” (PTP) verifying they passed a background check led to a 16 percent increase in the state murder rate, a new study from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has found. The additional gun murders occurred as the national and regional homicide rates decreased.
And it's important, even if it is painfully obvious. Background checks save lives. Making it more difficult for criminals to buy guns means fewer criminals will get guns (and, anti-background check folks, no one is claiming that it will keep every criminal from getting a gun, so give that strawman a rest already; but it does have a significant, demonstrable impact).

And, let's be clear, background checks do not prevent or hamper legal gun ownership. They don't limit "good guys". Just "bad guys". Even in NRA mythology, surely the odds have to be better for white-hatted cowboys, when there are fewer black-hatted polecats prowling around armed? And now we have evidence that demonstrates this.

But there's an aspect to the findings that is, perhaps, less obvious, but at least as important. After the appeal, not only did Missouri see a marked increase in the killings of its own citizens, but also
large increases in the number of guns diverted to criminals and in guns purchased in Missouri that were subsequently recovered by police in border states that retained their PTP laws.
This is a crucial point, and it illustrates very clearly the need for universal background checks. It's the same point I've made whenever Chicago gun crimes come up: attempts to limit criminals' ability to acquire weaponry are severely hampered when other national players stop caring. If one state opens up its gun market to whoever has the cash, no questions asked, an enterprising criminal can, with a bit of determination, a little time, and not too much difficulty, acquire a firearm.

That's not to say that state-mandated background checks are useless (this case demonstrates that they are not). But a hodgepodge system of background checks, particularly when some states decide to do away with them altogether, is far less effective than a consistent policy would be.

The Missouri case very clearly illustrates this: as soon as Missouri decided a $10 background check fee was too much of a burden to justify any effort at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, it wasn't just Missouri criminals who ended up with Missouri guns. Missouri became a source of guns for criminals in neighboring states. A single weak link in the chain can, and demonstrably does, influence gun violence elsewhere. In other words, in a hodgepodge system like ours, a single state's lack of concern for human life will lead to more deaths, not only for the people in that state but elsewhere as well.

That is precisely why we need an universal background check system: the background check system will never meet its full potential, and will always be in some measure stymied, until we implement it across the board. Then the Missouris of the nation can't decide to open the door to criminals purchasing guns -- and nor should they be able to, because it doesn't just impact Missouri, but the nation at large. It's not a regional matter or a local issue, it's an issue with a profound impact on the nation.

The Missouri case serves as a tragic illustration that gun policy has real life, life and death consequences. And it reinforces the need for universal background checks, by demonstrating exactly what happens when we leave what is very clearly not a single state's issue to the individual state to decide.


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  2. That’s an unfortunate development, as hundreds of thousands of gun-related crimes happen every year. True, it will not completely eliminate such crimes, but at least it would make it harder for owners to misuse firearms.

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