Universal Background Checks Are Back

The one size fits all nature of DC politics is starting to take its toll on the country in practically all facets of public policy, so it’s time to consider other alternatives

Mises.org February 12, 2019

While everyone was chatting about the 2018-2019 United States government shutdown, House Democrats introduced a universal background check bill H.R. 8 on January 8, 2019.

Marketed as a means to fight gun violence, this year’s UBC bill is the flagship legislation for gun controllers in the House. It would require almost all firearms sales and loans to be conducted by a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). In turn, all these transactions go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), closing the so-called “ gun show loophole.”

UBCs are present in eleven states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia. States like Maryland and Pennsylvania mandate background checks for handguns but not for long guns, such as rifles and shotguns.

Democrats, however, are not alone in this gun control battle. They can count on the bipartisan support of Republican Congressmen like Peter King, Brian Fitzpatrick, Brian Mast, Fred Upton, and Chris Smith.

The outrage following the Las Vegas, Sutherland Spring, and Parkland shootings has given gun control new life. With a wave of states passing bump stock bans and red flag gun confiscation orders , gun control momentum is now making its way to Congress. Infuriated by America’s supposedly, lax gun laws, gun controllers insist that UBCs are necessary tools to suppress the gun violence epidemic taking place in the U.S.

Pure Hype, Little Results

Is the hype behind UBCs warranted?

When surveying the case of Missouri, John Lott’s research in the War on Guns determined that Missouri’s UBC had a negligible impact on murder rates:

Between 1981 and 2007, Missouri had “universal background checks” in addition to the federal “Brady Law” background checks. The “universal” checks required that private sales of handguns – as opposed to sales done through stores – also be subject to such checks.

In the five years after 2007, when universal background checks were abandoned, Missouri’s murder rate rose by 17 percent. However, in the five years before that change, it had actually increased by 32 percent. Missouri was already on an ominous path and the rate of increase slowed after the law was eliminated.

With Lott’s findings taken into consideration, gun control advocates can’t say with complete certainty that their policies are the solution to crime. Government interventions, however, do come with numerous unintended consequences. Gun control behaves no differently.

Continuing to break down UBCs, Lott found that these types of laws ironically hurt minorities, the constituency gun control advocates claim to be protecting:

There are real costs of expanding background checks to private transfers. In particular, the fees on private transfers reduce gun ownership, particularly among law-abiding poor blacks who live in high crime urban areas and who benefit the most from protecting themselves; they will be the ones most likely priced out of owning guns for protection.

Just like economic regulations, additional layers of gun control are passed on to consumers. For the wealthy, this is a mere inconvenience. However, for inner city minorities and the less fortunate, this is a steep cost. Consequently, they are priced out of the gun market and must depend on unreliable policing services for defense.

Background Checks are Still a Problem

Expanded background checks are problematic, but even the current federal system isn’t much to write home about. The NICS background check system has been in existence for approximately two decades, yet people treat it like it’s been a century-long feature of American politics. This acceptance of another government intrusion has blinded many gun owners of the problems with a federal background check system.

NICS’s supposed strengths are based on wishful marketing that obscures some unsavory flaws. Despite its praise for producing speedy background checks, NICS’s production of false positives is starting to make people question its validity. False positives involve people being mixed and matched with criminals who happen to share the same name. According to estimates from the Crime Prevention Research Center, 93 percent of initial NICS denials were false positives in 2009.

Another less discussed aspect of NICS’ false positive boondoggle is its detrimental effects on minorities. Congressman Thomas Massie detailed this in an interview with the Conservative Review:

If you look at the percentage of young black males who are locked up and have similar names to those who are not locked up, you can anticipate that a lot of them would be denied if they go try to buy a firearm, based on the failures that we see every day there.

In spite of these concerns, NICS still remains intact even when crime rates were already declining by the mid-1990s, well before NICS came on to the scene in 1998.

Decentralize Gun Politics

UBCs should be opposed based on their intrusive nature and ineffectiveness in battling crime. Current debates on the latest slew of gun control in DC do have a silver lining: They have opened the door for debates on the validity of federal gun control.

If gun control programs cannot be abolished or defunded, they should at least be decentralized.

A more reasonable alternative to the gun control status quo would be to let the states decide on how they will administer gun policy. The one size fits all nature of DC politics is starting to take its toll on the country in practically all facets of public policy, so it’s time to consider other alternatives.

Decentralization would be a great place to start.

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