There is a common theme among gun control advocates that displays their inability to understand existing gun laws before they spout grandiose rhetoric. “Universal background checks” sounds great and most focus groups would probably support it, but opinions might change once you understand current laws, regulatory procedures, and crime statistics.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System was established in 1993 under the Brady Act. It allows Federal Firearms Licensees to rapidly perform background checks on any firearms transfer. In seconds, FFLs can determine if someone is qualified to receive a firearm.
NICS checks multiple databases for criminal records and other relevant information. It will fail an applicant for one of the following reasons, among others: convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, fugitives, unlawful user and/or addict of controlled substance (specifically those with multiple convictions), any person adjudicated as mentally defective or involuntarily committed to an institution, illegal aliens, dishonorably discharged service members, subjects of protective orders, and any person convicted of the use or threat of deadly weapons.
As you can see, this covers just about every reason you would not want someone owning a firearm. In fact, you have to answer these question on a form. If you lie, you go to jail.
So who uses NICS? The simple answer: every state. Thirty-six states rely directly on the NICS system and thirteen more have agencies acting on behalf of NICS with ATF qualified procedures. The remaining states share responsibility with NICS or have ATF-qualified alternate permits.
NICS deters criminals from legal purchasing as well as stops any attempt. In 2014, NICS denied 90,895 of 202,536,522 applications to acquire firearms. It’s pretty clear that those we “don’t want owning guns” have figured out they can’t get them legally.
Over 35,000 of these denials stemmed from applicants convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year imprisonment. Also notable, 17,000 were denied as fugitives from justice, 6,190 denied due to domestic violence convictions, and 3,557 from mental illness adjudication. Yes, the fugitives are arrested on the spot.
Our current laws work and NICS is just one of many ways we prevent criminals from getting guns. This does not mean the system is without fault, but I do believe it strikes a reasonable, compromising balance between civil liberties and public safety. There have certainly been cases where our zealous criminal justice system unnecessarily infringe upon civil liberties. Overall, NICS is a functioning operation.
That being said, it’s quite clear that the fear of “loopholes” is also unfounded. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, both fatal and non-fatal firearm violence are at historic lows down 39% and 69%, respectively.
Gun crime that does remain is clearly fueled by illegal activity. In 2004, less than 2% of state prison inmates possessing a gun at the time of arrest acquired that gun through a flea market or gun show and 8.2% acquired it from a retail store. Most of them either stole it or bought it off the black market.
When gun control advocates assert “universal background checks”, they rarely elaborate on what that entails on top of the existing laws and NICS. Most of them believe expanding NICS to all firearm transfers, specifically those at gun shows, will prevent crime. That, of course, fails to ascertain whether criminals actually acquire guns at gun shows and pays lip service to how they actually get a gun.
I am all in favor of making sure the “right” people are able to possess firearms. Efforts to curb gun violence should not, however, be directed as restricting ownership of law abiding citizens. Violence is much more social and requires more than “universal background checks”. We must address these problems at their root (i.e. drug gang violence), not at something that makes us feel safe.