A Senate Deal on Background Checks: What Would It Mean?

The Associated Press reports that Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin have agreed on an approach to expanded firearms background checks. Having Toomey and Manchin on board will certainly increase the odds of such a provision making it through the Senate, although at this point it is not clear how many votes there may be for their proposal, or even what, exactly, it is. This is how the AP describes the Toomey/Manchin agreement:

Currently, the background check system covers sales only by licensed gun dealers. The compromise would apply the system to all commercial sales, such as transactions at gun shows and online. The sales would have to be channeled through licensed firearms dealers, who would have to keep records of the transactions.

Private transactions that are not for profit, such as those between relatives, would be exempt from background checks.

I have no idea what “not for profit” means. If I sell one of my guns to my buddy Mitch Berg for $300, do I have to run a background check on him first? I think the answer is yes, but we will need to see the specific language of the bill.

So how significant an impact would such an expansion of background checks have? The answer is, not significant at all. Most firearms sales are by licensed dealers (i.e., stores), and they already are required to run background checks, using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). There are two problems with NICS as it currently exists. First, it does little or nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Criminals do not buy guns at stores. They get them in one of three ways: 1) They steal them; 2) they buy them from a fellow gang member in an alley; or 3) they send a girlfriend, who is a legal purchaser, to a store to buy the gun. Under current law, the gang member who sells a gun to a fellow gang member in an alley isn’t required to run a background check first. Under the proposed new law, he would be. But, of course, he won’t do it.

The second problem with NICS is that it is not effective at keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill. The reason for this is not a flaw in NICS per se, but rather the fact that most states do not put adequate data into the system in the first place. As long as that remains true, and as long as we have essentially no system for taking the dangerously mentally ill off the streets, expanding background checks won’t do any good.

So a “universal background check” system–universally complied with, that is, by the law-abiding–is a feel-good measure that can’t be expected to have much practical effect. That said, it isn’t a horrible idea. There is a huge secondary market for used firearms; they are widely available on the internet, and gun owners like to buy, sell and trade guns with their friends. It has been alleged that 40% of firearms sales are by persons who aren’t licensed dealers and therefore are outside of NICS, but that figure is so unreliable as to be meaningless. The real number is unknown, but unquestionably there are a great many such sales. Under the proposed legislation, the individual gun seller would go to a dealer to run the NICS search and keep a record of the transaction. That would be inconvenient and would involve a small fee, but neither the inconvenience nor the cost would be a heavy burden.

The main reason why many gun owners oppose this proposed expansion of the background check system is that if the federal government starts tracking all sales of both new and used guns, it will soon have, in effect, a registry of American gun owners. Such a registry could be the basis for a comprehensive gun confiscation program, once the liberals believe they have the political power to override the Second Amendment. How real is that danger? In the short term, not very. But gun owners are correct in believing that confiscation is the end toward which progressives are striving.

So those are the pros and cons of “universal background check” legislation. I don’t think it would be a disaster if such a law passed, but it is not an effective way to reduce violent crime, either.

UPDATE: The latest account of the Manchin/Toomey proposal describes it as somewhat more limited:

The proposal would expand background checks to cover all sales at gun shows and over the Internet. Those background checks would have to be accompanied by records proving to law enforcement officials they took place.

It would exempt gun sales and transfers between friends and acquaintances without the help of an online intermediary.

So the gang member wouldn’t have to run a check on his fellow criminal after all.