Study Suggests Additional Background Checks Deter Gun Deaths
Local and state checks can lead to fewer homicides and suicides
In the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre,
the deadliest one-man shooting rampage in U.S. history, Seung-Hui Cho
killed 32 people with guns he purchased from licensed dealers. Under
federal law, Cho should have been forbidden to purchase firearms since
a judge had deemed him to be mentally ill, but the National Instant
Criminal Background Check System (NICS)—the mandatory database that
licensed gun dealers use to screen customers—showed no record of his
In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre and the renewed gun control debate that followed, nonpartisan researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) questioned whether more thorough background checks could have prevented Cho from obtaining those guns. They conducted a study comparing firearm homicide and suicide rates across states.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires all states to screen gun buyers against the NICS, but individual states can require additional checks. Seventeen states, including Wisconsin, also use additional state-level background checks, and 12 states use local-level checks.
These additional checks can unearth disqualifiers that the NICS overlooks. For instance, local records may show that an individual has been convicted of a crime or has become the subject of a restraining order before sluggish federal records do. In particular, local records may be more up-to-date on an individual’s mental status. In Cho’s case, his federal file was woefully incomplete.
“NICS is supposed to have information on all factors that would disqualify someone from purchasing a firearm, but mostly it focuses on whether someone has been convicted of a felony,” explains Dr. Peter Layde, who co-authored the MCW study with Steven A. Sumner and Clare Guse. “In some other areas, the database doesn’t appear to be as complete.
There’s special concern over issues of mental illness.”
A Big Loophole Remains
The MCW researchers found that states that implemented local-level background checks had 22% lower firearm homicide rates and 27% lower firearm suicide rates than states that relied on just the federal check. States with statelevel background checks also had lower rates of firearm suicides and homicides than states without them, but local checks appear to be the most effective.
Given the results, Layde suggests two policy approaches: More states could include local agencies in the background checking process, or the NICS could be supplemented with additional information on factors where local records may be more complete.
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, says that the study shows that background checks work, and that they are more effective when they are more thorough. She adds, however, that even requiring additional background checks at licensed dealers will not address the biggest contributor to gun violence: the private sale of guns.
“If you’re buying a gun from a licensed gun dealer, you need to show identification and go through a background check,” Bonavia explains. “But if you buy a gun from an unlicensed dealer or private seller, which is perfectly legal, there’s no background check required, no ID required. Those sales are legal in Wisconsin and they are the source of the vast majority of crime guns … about 90% of crime guns in Wisconsin and nationwide come from this secondary market.”
Addressing this loophole, she says, is imperative to reducing the firearm homicide rate. “It’s amazing to me that we’re asking the question ‘how are these criminals getting guns?’ when we’re not even trying to prevent them,” she said.