Expanded Background Checks for Gun Sales

President Obama opened 2016 with executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence by expanding background checks, increasing the number of agents working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, access to mental health care and pushing for gun safety technology. In doing so, he rekindled an ongoing debate.

Few people would argue that gun safety technology, additional ATF agents and access to mental health care are bad ideas when looking to curb gun violence. As it turns out, research shows that the majority of Americans agree when it comes to the expansion of background checks for gun sales.

According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Americans support expanding background checks to private sales and gun shows. But the research also shows concerns over the federal government’s ability to enforce such regulations. In principle, people support background checks; in practice, less so.

The survey revealed that in May 2013, the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have extended background checks to include firearms sold at gun shows and online, did not pass in the Senate. While 81% of the public said they supported background checks, only 73% actually wanted that bill to pass. The reason, according to Pew, is that many feared the bill would go too far and be a slippery slope toward strict gun control.

But the question remains: Do background checks work?

Two recent studies have unveiled some answers to these questions. The first drew connections between a 1995 law that passed in Connecticut mandating gun buyers possess permits which required background checks and a 40% drop in homicides; suicides also fell by 15%. In Missouri, researchers studied the effect of the state’s 2007 repeal of a permit-to-purchase law and found that it correlated with a 23% increase in homicides, while suicides also increased by 16%.

But the research does come with a caveat. The studies looked at the effect of permit-to-purchase laws. This means gun buyers must apply for a permit through local law enforcement agencies and submit to a background check before purchasing a firearm; gun sellers can only sell to people with a permit. The difference between having to submit to a background check with law enforcement for a license to buy a gun versus simply purchasing one from a retailer may have impacted the correlation in results. The potential influencing factors don’t stop there either. Different states may react differently to such laws, particularly those with “stand-your-ground” legislation.

Background checks for gun purchases are not without their opponents. A 2000 study indicated that the implementation of background checks and waiting periods on handguns as a result of the 1994 Brady Act did little to reduce homicide or suicide rates with the exception of suicides in people over the age of 55. The White House, however, contends that they do. According to a press release following the president’s executive actions, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates background check systems have prevented more than 2 million guns from being sold to “prohibited individuals.”

The executive actions intend to make the location of a gun sale irrelevant. In order for a transaction to occur, the seller must be licensed to sell and conduct background checks. It also intends to require background checks for people trying to purchase weapons through a trust or corporation.

Other facets of the president’s plan include getting states to work cooperatively with jurisdictions to improve reporting and ensuring that states provide records to the background check system. It also recognizes that the background check system needs to be more efficient and effective. This will require the processing of background checks 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

In so doing, the FBI will hire more than 230 additional examiners to work in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). For their part, the ATF will see the addition of 200 new agents and investigators to its ranks to help enforce gun laws.

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