Friday, May 03, 2013

Why I Support Universal Background Checks

The failure of the Manchin-Toomey amendment that would have resulted in a broader range of gun purchases requiring background checks got me to thinking. Why in the world can't we agree how to restrict access to guns? Everyone, even Wayne LaPierre, agrees that there is a group of people who should not have access to firearms (though LaPierre might start his list with "black folks, for starters.").

You know why it is? It's because of Chicago.

Chicago is widely cited as having among the strictest gun laws in the country. And it also has a huge number of murders, mostly in the city's rough south side.

So, the argument goes, if Chicago has strict gun laws and lots of shootings, then gun laws won't do anything to stop crime, right?

That argument is bullshit.

Here's the thing: Chicago is not a walled or moated city. It's illegal to sell guns in Chicago, sure. But it's not illegal to sell them in Elk Grove Village, Kankakee, or Schaumburg. And it's not illegal to possess guns in Chicago.

And that gets to the core of the issue. I can own a gun in Chicago, walk across the city limits into some other municipality, sell it to someone who isn't allowed to own a gun, and they go off and shoot someone. I have committed no crime.

That's a big problem, and I think that background checks can be the solution.

The thing is that laws can take two different directions. The first - which has been demonstrated quite clearly in Chicago - is one of criminalizing possession of an item or substance (I guess the drug war analogy works here, too). Criminalizing possession does not work, obviously, because the person who has the thing has ALREADY committed a crime by possessing it, and in the case of guns, they have a tool to commit a far more heinous act.

The second is thwarting obtention. That's what things like moving sudafed behind the counter are designed to do. And that does work.

Part of why these laws work is because they don't criminalize anything - they PREVENT the crime from being able to happen in the first place. They also operate on entirely legal objects, like rifles or claritin. Because these objects are in and of themselves not illegal to possess, those people who have a right or need to own them have no incentive to operate outside the boundaries of the law. Flash an ID, pay the shopkeeper, and go about your day. The channel itself is a perfectly legal channel, but access to it is what is restricted.

Now, the drug war analogy breaks down here, because of the vast number of available sources of drugs, because drugs are illegal to possess in most cases, and because drugs are a constantly-renewable resource. But for guns, the actual number of objects on the market is quite small - 300,000,000 items is not actually that many. Americans use that many ounces of marijuana every year, and you can get about 25 joints from one ounce, so you're looking at, at a minimum, 7.5 billion joints smoked in the US each year.

Plus, many guns have sympathetic value, or will remain with their owners for their lifetime. Then there's turnover time, which is also much longer than the turnover time for drugs.

So the actual number of guns on the marketplace for any set period - say, one year - is significantly less than 300,000,000. Probably much closer to 25 or 50 million, which is 7 tenths of 1 percent the number of joints on the marketplace in any one year.

So at this point we can probably agree that laws that restrict access to guns are sufficiently noncomparable to laws that restrict access to drugs.

To get to the core of this post, I strongly support universal background checks, passed through either a licensed dealer or the local police. I believe that background checks alone will thwart a lot of the sales of guns to people, because it will crimp down on channels by which guns can pass to them (yes, I'm including private sales, friends and families, and gun shows). I think background checks need to be on all types of weapons, but I'm willing to start with handguns, because that's the source of most gun crime.

I also strongly support, after participating in debates on the topic, enhanced prosecution efforts for lying on background check forms. The NRA does, occasionally, accidentally make a salient point, and this is one of them. The actual number of prosecutions for lying on background check forms can be counted on the hands of you and six of your friends (five, if one of them has polydactyly). And I think, in partnership with my first supported point, that this will stop a lot of sales of guns to people who shouldn't have them.

And I support, at the very least at the county or state level, mandatory gun tracking: a registry of all firearms sold in the state. I think that needs to be under extreme lock-and-key, and maybe even needs to be on paper and not computerized, but it needs to be done. Tracking firearms now to try to stop sales of guns to criminals, or to punish those who do, is a very difficult process (if you've ever seen NCIS, look at what Abby does, then imagine the ways to make that as hard as possible, and take away the computers, and then do that. That's how it's done now).

At the end of the day, guns are not like cars, hammers, or drugs. They are designed to kill or seriously injure another living thing. And we, as a society, need to think long and hard about how to be sure that the people who hold these tools are really the ones who should have them.


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