If you have been following the debate over gun policy in Washington, then you’ve heard a lot about some familiar ideas, like strengthening the federal background check system and banning assault-style weapons.
But if you’ve been listening to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, then you may have heard about another proposal — one that hasn’t gotten much attention nationally but one that, some experts believe, has even more potential to reduce firearms violence.
That idea is gun licensing.
In a licensing — or “permit to purchase” — system, nobody could buy a gun without first getting some kind of card or certificate (in other words, a license) from local or state authorities. And to get that license, a potential buyer would have to satisfy a few conditions, like completing a firearms safety course and submitting fingerprints.
Among the 10 Democratic candidates who have endorsed licensing in some form is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was the first to make it part of his campaign platform, along with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Licensing was also part of the comprehensive plan to address gun violence that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled on Saturday, in advance of an Iowa forum organized by the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.
The impetus for that forum was last weekend’s carnage in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — back-to-back mass shootings that have refocused national attention on gun violence. But Warren and the others had actually endorsed licensing long before, which suggests they are serious about pushing the idea if they get the chance.
The How’s and Why’s Of Guns Licensing
Licensing systems already exist in a few states. The ones that impress advocates and experts are those that require would-be purchasers to show up in person, typically at a local police station, in order to file paperwork.
Simply requiring that direct, one-on-one contact with law enforcement can deter people with violent intent, as well as anybody attempting to make a “straw purchase” on behalf of someone who couldn’t pass a federal background check. “The very act of getting fingerprinted dissuades individuals who are straw purchasers from trafficking,” Igor Volsky, activist and author of the book Guns Down, told HuffPost.
And because completing the process, including the safety course, typically takes days if not weeks, licensing is a natural check on impulsive acts.
“These procedures may deter individuals who might otherwise make impulsive decisions to acquire a gun to hurt themselves or others,” Daniel Webster, a gun violence researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said in June following the release of a new report on gun licensing laws.
The state with the strongest licensing system, Massachusetts, requires would-be purchasers to submit two character references in writing. It also gives the police discretion to deny a license any time they spot credible evidence that an applicant poses a threat to public safety, as long as officers submit their reasons in writing to a judge and the rejected applicant has a chance to appeal the decision.
The system works differently from community to community. In the big cities and suburbs, license officers will check incident reports and, if they notice a history of calls about an applicant, sometimes even conduct interviews with family and neighbors. In small towns, the license officers usually know about applicants without having to check.
“Local police chiefs typically know more about the people in their community than does a national computer,” David Hemenway, a Harvard health policy professor who studies gun violence, told The Trace in a 2015.
Whatever the community’s size, law enforcement officials say, the process allows them to spot people whom the existing background check system might miss but whose recent behavior makes them a possible threat. The most common reasons for denial, officers say, are histories of domestic violence complaints and substance abuse problems.
As Lu-Ann Czapala, an officer from the western Massachusetts town of Ware, explained to HuffPost last year, “The ones who get our attention ... are the ones we’ve had to see before, to come to their houses, with incidents that don’t rise up to arrests but tell us, ‘Hey, something is not right here. Gee, we’ve been to this house so many times.’”
Even the Massachusetts system has gaps. Determined purchasers who are denied a license can try to obtain guns illegally or simply go across the border, to a state like New Hampshire, which has no licensing. That is one reason Massachusetts officials have lobbied for a national system.
A handful of legislators have been trying. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed licensing legislation back in 2015, while he was in the House. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a bill of his own last year. Warren is the bill’s lone co-sponsor and she has previously praised the Massachusetts program, citing the state’s low firearms mortality rate as proof that it works.
The case for licensing laws isn’t really that open-and-shut. Establishing causal links to gun laws in the U.S. is inherently difficult, partly because porous state borders make the effects of any state-level effort difficult to measure. Research inevitably ends up making assumptions and statistical adjustments that are open to criticism.
Even so, experts like Hemenway say, studies on two states that added licensing requirements (Connecticut and Maryland) and one that took them away (Missouri) provide good reason to think that licensing makes a difference, especially when it comes to suicide. And the idea that a licensing system would deter impulsive acts of violence makes a lot of sense intuitively.
The Legal Obstacles ― And The Political Ones
A Massachusetts-style system could invite a challenge in the courts, although the provision requiring officers to justify denials in writing to a court and giving applicants the right to appeal might be enough to satisfy judges worried about Second Amendment rights.
But the immediate obstacle to a licensing system isn’t constitutional. It’s political.
President Donald Trump has responded to last week’s shootings by pledging to pass gun legislation and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised that the Senate will take up the issue in September when it returns from summer recess. But neither promise means a whole lot given each man’s history and their party’s opposition to most gun laws.
That is why the best hope for gun licensing — or any significant gun control legislation — would seem to lie in a new Congress and, yes, a new president.
This story has been updated to include a quote from Igor Volsky and the exact number of Democratic candidates who support licensing.