In the coming weeks, gun control bills will be heavily discussed in Congress — including the contentious assault weapons ban being proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). But one particular measure that is more likely to pass is a proposal for universal background checks (UBC’s). When we analyze the support for UBC's and what they would entail, we quickly realize that this proposal alone still fails to address the underlying issues regarding our mental health system and the lack of enforcement of current laws.
There is agreement on all sides that our laws should be focused on keeping firearms out of the hands of people that should not have them. According to a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, 74% of NRA members support UBC's alongside 84% of gun owners and 90% of non-gun owners. However, support for implementing UBC's revolves around using the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for all transactions. This is an important distinction for those that fear UBC's are a work-around for a national gun registry, as NICS records of approved transfers must be destroyed within 24 hours. For UBC's to work, however, the current NICS needs to be fully realized.
After the Virginia Tech shooting, The NICS Improvement Amendments Act (NIAA) was passed in 2007 in order to incentivize mental health reporting by the states to the NICS database. According to a 2012 GAO report, even though submissions of mental health records that would prohibit individuals from purchasing a firearm has increased, the vast majority of the submissions only come from 12 states. For instance, Maryland has only submitted 58 mental health records that would prohibit an individual from purchasing a gun.
In addition, according to the Bureau of Justice's statistics, only 18 states have submitted promised practices for collecting, maintaining, and submitting information that would preclude someone purchasing a firearm, based on recommendations by the NIAA and GAO report, and only those 18 states have qualified for grants to implement these practices.
This, however, leads to another area of concern regarding mental health. We need clear definitions of what constitutes a mental illness that may disqualify a person from purchasing a firearm, and individuals need a clear avenue of recourse if they become disqualified. Most of all, we need a real discussion of how to identify and treat mentally ill individuals so that we can get those individuals the help that they need without the stigma associated with it. The discussion regarding mental health must cease being the third rail of political discourse if we want these background checks to mean something.
If we make progress in areas of mental health and implement UBC's that may make a difference in preventing some tragedies such as mass shootings — as a majority of these cases involve individuals with mental health issues. However, we cannot expect UBC's to make much difference in gun crime overall. Gun control advocates like to fall back on the claim that 40% of firearm transactions are done through what they refer to as the "gun show loophole" in order to justify implementing UBC's. This statistic has been debunked though, and there is no such loophole.
What UBC's can address though is requiring a NICS check for private transactions of firearms between two individuals. In order to accommodate this, private transactions could be done through federal firearms licensed (FFL) dealers. Some states already require that certain private firearms transactions go through an FFL. Certainly, law abiding gun owners do not want to sell their firearms to people who should not have them. Opponents of this idea though say that this also creates a burden on individual gun owners, for example, if the nearest FFL dealer is a day's drive away and the purchaser is a good friend or neighbor.
With that said, another problem with UBC's would be enforcement. How would the government go about policing private firearm transactions? This follows the same hypothetical enforcement problem as straw purchasing, where one person buys a firearm with the intent of providing that firearm to someone who cannot legally purchase one himself or herself. If we keep in mind that the prosecution of known background check fraud is lax, where the FBI reported in 2009 that out of 71,000 cases only 77 were prosecuted, law enforcement will need to come up with better techniques to enforce laws regarding UBC's and straw purchasing.
There are already strict laws that prohibit straw purchasing for ineligible persons and make such acts punishable by up to 10 years in prison. If we consider that criminals and straw purchasers are not deterred by these laws and will likely not be deterred by UBC's, then in reality the only benefit of UBC's is that private law abiding gun owners will know if they are attempting to sell a firearm to an ineligible person. Whether this benefit is worth mandating UBC's is debatable.
While universal background checks may be something that most people can agree on, we should be reminded that in order for these checks to be effective, the problems regarding our mental health system, mental health reporting, and enforcement of existing laws need to be addressed. The proposal for UBC's by itself will have little impact on mass shootings or even keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. But even if we do not implement UBC's, addressing these key areas would go a long way in preventing tragedies.