In the days following last weekend’s mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, a number of prominent Democrats have reiterated their call for the Senate to pass universal background checks.
The need for legislation is obvious. Guns cause more than 36,000 deaths per year and account for nearly three-quarters of all homicides. Americans make up 4% of the world’s population but own nearly half of its firearms. Ninety-two percent of Americans, including 83% of gun owners, support universal background checks.
There’s just one problem: Without a much larger package of reforms, the bills passed by the House have little chance of reducing gun crime or mass shootings.
“Background checks work to prevent violence in many cases, but research indicates that they need to be accompanied by a more comprehensive set of reforms if we want them to significantly reduce gun fatalities,” said Rose Kagawa, a gun violence prevention researcher at the University of California, Davis.
Over the last three years, numerous studies have documented that background checks alone have limited effects on gun violence. In February, a study of California’s comprehensive background check law found that it had no effect on crime or suicide rates. Last year, researchers noted that when Indiana and Tennessee repealed their comprehensive background check laws, they didn’t experience an uptick in gun crime. Another found that in urban areas, comprehensive background checks were associated with an increase in firearm homicides.
The reason for this is that the effectiveness of background checks, like every other government policy, depend heavily on how they’re implemented.
The United States already has a number of background-check measures in place. The 1993 Brady Bill requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on all their customers. Many states have gone further, requiring fingerprints, safety training and longer waiting periods.
No matter how strict these measures are, though, the data behind them is patchy at best.
“The background check system isn’t going to work if the database of people who aren’t allowed to buy guns is essentially empty,” said Matthew Lang, an economist at University of California-Riverside who has written numerous studies on gun control.
States differ wildly in their procedures for gathering and maintaining background-check information. According to FBI data, Montana has just 38 residents who are barred from purchasing firearms. Oregon and Oklahoma have roughly the same population, but Oregon has 10 times more people banned from buying guns. Any effort to make background checks national and meaningful, Lang said, would have to ensure consistency across states.
“There’s no uniform way to work with this database,” Lang said. “It’s not preventing the people you need to prevent from buying guns.”
Gary Kleck, a retired criminologist and the author of a 2016 review of the effectiveness of gun control measures, said states are also inconsistent in how they determine who should be barred from purchasing a gun due to mental illness.
“Most people who are mentally ill aren’t at risk of committing violence,” Kleck said. “What we’re talking about is a small group that is legally defined as a harm to themselves or others. But the records are terrible. They have to be convicted in a court of law as dangerous, that document has to be scanned, then it has to be available on a national database. All that has to happen for you to have a fighting chance of identifying a buyer as someone who shouldn’t own a gun.”
There’s also the challenge of ensuring that background checks take place at all. A 2018 study found that after passing comprehensive background check laws, neither Washington nor Colorado saw a significant increase in the number of background checks performed. According to Kleck, most of the states that already require background checks for private gun purchases — the provision the House bills would install nationwide — have relatively low compliance rates.
“Some gun owners don’t know about the requirement,” Kleck said. “Others think the government has no right to involve itself in a private transaction. They see it as nobody else’s business if they want to sell a gun to their brother-in-law Charlie.”
Plus, while mass shootings earn wall-to-wall media coverage, they may be the form of gun crime least likely to be prevented by background checks. Mass shootings, Kleck pointed out, are almost always premeditated. That means shooters have both the time and the desire to seek out new ways of obtaining a firearm if they find one avenue blocked off.
“The more persistent the desire to commit a crime is, the harder it is to prevent,” Kleck said.
All of the researchers who spoke to HuffPost stressed, however, that the weaknesses of America’s background check system don’t mean the House bills are worthless. It just means that they should be accompanied by a larger set of reforms.
“Will they produce a statistically significant drop in crime? No. But that’s not the same as having no effect,” said Robert Spitzer, the chair of the political science department at State University of New York, Cortland, and the author of five books on gun control. “Gun violence will invariably require multi-pronged solutions. Progress is always going to be incremental.”
To make the legislation effective, lawmakers would have to add provisions improving the quality and consistency of the underlying data. State and local police spend very little time investigating gun-related crimes unless they’re directly linked to violence; departments across the country would need training and manpower to ensure that citizens were following the new regulations. Plus, they would simply need to know about the expanded checks. Kleck suggested putting signs in gun stores informing owners that they would have to perform a background check even if they sold a gun on Craigslist.
But although background checks are worth pursuing, they also shouldn’t be seen as a replacement of larger and more ambitious efforts. With the notable exception of Sen. Cory Booker’s gun-licensing program, none of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have produced gun control plans that propose measures bolder than universal background checks and assault-weapon bans. Both of these policies are essential to gun control, but neither is sufficient.
“The gun policy proposals being discussed are relatively small bore,” Spitzer said. “They’re not as ambitious as earlier efforts.”
Spitzer pointed out that for most of the 1970s, Congress was locked in a debate over “Saturday night specials,” small handguns often used in street crime. In 1975, the Republicans proposed a bill to ban them. Democrats, believing the bill didn’t go far enough, proposed their own, more ambitious plan. With the deadlock, neither ended up passing.
According to Kleck, the House bills currently under consideration by the Senate won’t ensure that every gun purchase in America is accompanied by a background check. They will, however, likely increase the current percentage. That’s not everything, but it’s something.
“You shouldn’t expect too much from universal background checks,” Kleck said, “but nevertheless, they’re a good idea.”