The Gun Debate 1 Year After Newtown Assessing Six Key Claims About Gun Background Checks by Arkadi Gerney and Chelsea Parsons | December 13, 2013
“The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, reignited the debate on whether to strengthen federal and state gun laws. Soon after the massacre, the top priority for advocates for stronger gun laws became broadening background checks to apply to all gun sales. Under current federal law, vendors in the business of selling guns must get a license, conduct background checks, and keep records. But unlicensed “private” sellers—persons who maintain they sell only occasionally at gun shows, online, or anywhere else—are able to sell guns with no questions asked. In some ways, the debate’s emphasis on the universal background checks proposal was surprising—after all, the Newtown shooter would not have been subject to federal prohibitions, other than the one that blocks handgun sales to persons under 21, and background checks were only tangentially related to the shooting. The ascendance of background checks as the primary policy proposal to combat gun violence reflects a shift in gun-reform advocates’ strategy from tightening regulations on guns themselves to strengthening laws that keep guns away from dangerous people. The shift had already begun before Newtown; after, it only accelerated.
Both policy research and political realities informed this shift in priorities. As a policy matter, most research suggests that making it more difficult for dangerous people to acquire guns will have a significant impact in reducing the more than 30,000 gun deaths that happen every year in America. As a political matter, polling conducted before and after Newtown show that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans support expanding background checks, including most gun owners.
As the debate over the universal background checks proposal heated up before the Senate voted on the matter in April, discussion of the substantive benefits of this policy proposal was mostly lost in the fray. The background checks debate far too often devolved into sound bites, which gave rise to a number of widespread misunderstandings about the universal background checks proposal and its potential effects on gun violence in the United States.
In this issue brief, we assess six key claims that have been made about background checks in the past year:
- 40 percent of gun sales occur without a background check.
- Few criminals visit gun shows to acquire guns illegally.
- Universal background checks will not work because criminals will not submit to them.
- Efforts to prevent gun violence should focus on straw purchasing from gun dealers, not gun transfers among unlicensed buyers and sellers.
- We should not enact new laws on background checks until the federal government starts prosecuting violations of the current laws.
- Universal background checks would harm gun dealers.
Some of the claims are true, some are false, and some fall in the middle. But all of these common talking points, whether for or against background checks, have become divorced from their context, making them difficult to understand. Our goal in the pages that follow is to assess each of these six key claims regarding the proposal to require background checks for all gun sales in order to provide a deeper analysis and contextualize the claims.”