The editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal concluded that a Nevada proposal to expand background checks on gun sales is unlikely to reduce gun violence, but their argument ignored how these measures stop dangerous individuals from obtaining guns.
On December 6, the Gazette-Journal published an editorial arguing that while the “sentiment” behind a likely 2016 initiative to expand criminal checks to most gun transfers in Nevada is “a good one,” it would not prevent mass shootings like those in Aurora, CO, Newtown, CT, and Tucson, AZ and therefore “is unlikely to be effective” at reducing gun violence.
While the editorial focused heavily on the supposed non-effect of gun background checks in decreasing mass shootings, it glossed over the effectiveness of background checks in reducing the ability of violent criminals to obtain guns.
The primary purpose of a criminal background check on a gun sale is to stop people prohibited under federal or state law from obtaining firearms used in everyday gun violence. Since the early 1990s, the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and state background checks systems have stopped more than two million gun sales to prohibited persons. Of more than one million federal denials processed by NICS since 1998, the majority of denials were for individuals convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors. Status as a fugitive from justice or a having domestic violence conviction were the second and third most common reasons for a denial.
Indeed, Nevadans for Background Checks -- the group responsible for collecting signatures for the ballot initiative -- has explained that background checks are important to ensure “dangerous people” fail to obtain guns and has not focused on mass shootings.
The group's website notes, “We have the right to bear arms, but with rights come responsibilities. That's why federal law currently prohibits felons, domestic abusers, the severely mentally ill, and other dangerous people from buying guns, and background checks are required for gun sales at licensed dealers. But dangerous people can easily buy guns in Nevada from unlicensed sellers -- including strangers they meet online and at gun shows -- without a background check, no questions asked.”
Contrary to the editorial's assertion, background checks are effective at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. According to FBI data, states that require background checks on private handgun sales have lower crime rates than states that have no such requirement in several crime categories. These include the number of women murdered by intimate partners, the incidence of aggravated assault with firearms, and the number of police officers killed with handguns. States with a handgun background check requirement also have 49 percent fewer firearm suicides compared to other states. (Since Missouri eliminated a background check requirement on handgun sales in 2007, gun homicides are up 23 percent.)
The Gazette-Journal editorial board's focus on mass shootings is also misleading. Citing recent high profile mass shootings the board wrote, “Consider three of the biggest mass shootings in recent memory, none of which would have been avoided if this proposal had been in effect in the states where they happened.”
Cherry-picking these three high profile examples does not take into account other mass shootings that received less attention but could have been prevented with background check laws. For example, in October 2012 a Wisconsin man prohibited from purchasing a gun because he was subject to a protection order bought a handgun in an online private sale. He later used that gun to shoot seven people at a Milwaukee-area spa. The man's estranged wife was among the three women killed in the attack.
A recent spree killing in West Virginia also raises questions about the private sale of firearms without a background check. According to federal authorities, a West Virginia man who shot to death four people at three separate locations on December 1 purchased the gun used in the attack through Facebook. The shooter, who committed suicide, was prohibited from owning a firearm because of a past felony conviction for weapons and kidnapping charges.
Private sales were also a critical factor in how the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting obtained their firearms. All four guns involved in that shooting were passed through a local gun show by private sellers before being obtained by the gunmen.