Why Universal Background Checks Aren't A Panacea
If there’s one strategy to reduce gun violence on which just about everyone agrees, it’s expanding FBI-NICS background checks beyond the initial sale to make it more difficult for guns to wind up in the “wrong hands.” The assumption behind this strategy is the idea that if every time a gun moves from one person to another, a background check would identify people whose behavior put them in one of the prohibited categories (e.g., felon, habitual drug user, etc.) that have always been an indication for criminal use of a gun.
Behind this assumption lies another assumption, the idea that most of the guns that eventually end up in the hands of the bad guys get there because someone with a clean record buys the gun, knowing that he or she is planning to give or sell the gun to someone who can’t pass a background check and, hence, can’t be the initial purchaser of the gun. When such a purchase occurs, it is referred to as a “straw” sale, and if the buyer or the person to whom the buyer gives the gun then sells it to someone else, it is referred to as gun “trafficking”; these two behaviors – straw sales and gun trafficking – are usually considered to be the way that most guns get into the “wrong” hands.
There have been many studies, too numerous to mention here, which show that a majority of guns picked up at crime scenes come from some location other than the actual scene of the crime, often not just another city but from another state. New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, issued a report which showed that, of nearly 46,000 crime guns recovered in the state between 2010 and 2015, nearly three-quarters came from other states, the bulk from states located on Interstate 95, which happens to be the most direct route from gun-rich states like Georgia and Florida up to New York.
The problem with data which shows the origin of crime guns, both in New York and elsewhere, is that since only the first gun transaction can be traced in most states (although 18 states have extended NICS checks to handgun sales, or all gun show sales or all sales), the fact that a gun first sold in South Carolina ended up being used to kill someone in Long Island doesn’t really say anything about how that particular gun got from there to here. And this is because, in most states, the original owner of the gun doesn’t have to report when or why he no longer owns a particular gun. Most states don’t require mandatory reporting of gun thefts, and few states require that police report stolen guns to the feds. The only gun owners who must report missing or stolen guns to the ATF are federally-licensed gun dealers, and most dealers protect their inventory because replacing a stolen gun ain’t cheap.
Now for the first time a group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have published data on how guns that were picked up by the Pittsburgh PD actually went from the counter-top to the street. Based on an analysis of 762 gun traces conducted by the Firearms Tracing Unit in 2008, the researchers established that while 80 percent of the guns were recovered from persons other than the legal owner, at least one-third were stolen (the actual number was probably substantially higher) but less than half of those thefts were reported to the police. If this data is at all representative of the national scene, this means that upwards of 200,000 unreported guns get into “wrong hands” each year without a single straw sale.
Neither expanded background checks nor more diligence about straw sales has anything to do with stolen guns. And if gun owners were penalized for not reporting gun thefts, I guarantee you they would be more careful about securing their guns. And by the way, reporting a missing gun doesn’t violate any of those so-called 2nd Amendment “rights” at all.
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