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To Reduce Murder-By-Gun Rates, Enact Background Checks — Not A Weapons Ban

Jessica Marshall, of Roy, Wash., wears a Glock 9mm pistol in a holster at a gun-rights rally, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Jessica Marshall, of Roy, Wash., wears a Glock 9mm pistol in a holster at a gun-rights rally, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

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It must be lonely being a gun nut.

Sure, the National Rifle Association doesn’t break a sweat while keeping its compliant congressional puppies on a leash; that’s effortless. Yet anti-gun safety zealots like the NRA’s leaders are a numeric (if politically potent) fringe: 69 percent of the lobby’s own members support comprehensive background checks on gun buyers, and an even higher percentage of non-member gun owners endorse the idea.

Like rabid bulls, the gun nuts charge whenever a reasonable gun owner endorses common-sense gun safety (read the comments thread here.) Currently, the bulls are stampeding against the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which passed the House recently with overwhelming Democratic and scant Republican support. It is the most significant gun safety legislation in decades.

The bill prompted the predictable drivel from NRA Executive Director Chris Cox:

Universal background checks, while inconsequential to public safety, are a necessary piece of an overall puzzle that will transform the U.S. right to keep and bear arms into a European style privilege reserved for wealthy elite who can afford to comply with burdensome, bureaucratic procedures to acquire a firearm.

Sadly for Cox, new research from Boston University suggests he’s dead wrong about background checks’ futility. The study could rewrite the playbook for firearm safety, which to date has focused on banning certain types of especially lethal weapons.

Outlawing assault weapons, large capacity magazines and the like had no effect on murder-by-gun rates, according to the researchers, who sifted through 25 years of homicide and suicide records to study 10 different types of gun safety laws enacted by the 50 states. But the 13 states with universal background checks (including Massachusetts) averaged a 58 percent lower firearm homicide rate than states without such checks.

“Laws regulating the sale of assault weapons are unlikely to have a large impact on homicide rates, because these weapons are used in only a very small proportion of homicides,” lead researcher Michael Siegel told BU Today, the university’s news website (where I’m employed). “The vast majority of firearm homicides in the United States are committed with handguns. In contrast, laws that restrict access to firearms among those people who are at the greatest risk for violence — namely, people with a history of violence — are intervening among a subpopulation of people who are likely to commit crimes.”

Outlawing assault weapons, large capacity magazines and the like had no effect on murder-by-gun rates ...

However rare the killings from lethal types of weapons, they can be used to slaughter more efficiently in mass shootings like the 2017 Las Vegas concert massacre (which prompted the Trump Administration to ban bump stocks). Still, the BU research spotlights the importance of background checks and the new legislation that would expand them.

The Bipartisan Background Checks Act would close the so-called “gun show loophole” and require background checks of unlicensed gun-show and online sales, which licensed firearms dealers must conduct. More than a fifth of gun sales now legally elude a check.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a bill into law that expands background checks to nearly all gun sales in New Mexico in a ceremony in in Santa Fe, N.M., Friday, March 8, 2019. (Morgan Lee/AP)
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a bill into law that expands background checks to nearly all gun sales in New Mexico in a ceremony in in Santa Fe, N.M., Friday, March 8, 2019. (Morgan Lee/AP)

Sadly, the measure is almost certainly DOA in the GOP Senate; the NRA's leash is nothing if not taut. We couldn't even pass universal background checks in the wake of 20 murdered children and a half dozen educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Governors in New Mexico and Nevada recently made their states the latest to enact background checks. Among the objections from Second Amendment extremists was that rural-dwellers would be more affected — not denied guns, just more affected — than urbanites. There's already a call for a statewide repeal vote in New Mexico, where 25 county-level officials said they’ll refuse to enforce the new law when it goes into effect July 1.

Still, given the logjam on sensible safety measures in Congress, the state-by-state slog to pass gun laws is all we have for now. While supporters of gun safety fared well in last November's House races, they did less well in the Senate. Second Amendment supporters who dissent from the NRA line on federal background-check legislation notwithstanding, too many U.S. senators can’t be bothered with keeping au courant on gun research.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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