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Research: Gun Licenses, Not Background Checks, More Effective In Cutting Gun Violence

Guns at Frontier Justice gun store in Lee's Summit, Missouri.
Chris Haxel
KCUR 89.3
Nine states and Washington, D.C., currently have licenses for gun purchases.

Many advocates and politicians push universal background checks on gun purchases as a way to decrease gun violence. But researchers at John Hopkins say there’s a more effective solution to preventing homicide and suicide: requiring a license to purchase a handgun.

Just nine states and Washington, D.C., currently have licensing requirements for gun purchases. After Connecticut adopted its licensing law in 1995, gun homicides dropped by 40 percent and gun suicides dropped by 15 percent over ten years. When Missouri repealed its law in 2007, firearm homicides increased by 17 to 27 percent through 2016.

Johns Hopkins researcher Cassandra Crifasi says that background checks by themselves have not been shown to reduce gun violence.

“Background checks are a really important foundation for other policies to function, but we really need this stronger accountability system that increases responsibility among gun purchasers and sellers to really impact gun violence,” Crifasi said.

According to Crifasi, states generally use three approaches to screen out prohibited individuals from purchasing firearms:

  • a standard, federally required background check prior to a sale by a licensed dealer
  • a comprehensive background check that also covers private-party firearm transfers
  • a background check for all firearm transfers as a complement to a licensing or permit system

Background checks without the added requirement of a permit can create loopholes, as was the case with Dylann Roof. Roof was able to purchase the handgun that he shot and killed nine people at a Charleston church in 2015. It became known as the “Charleston loophole” because even though Roof should not have been able to purchase a gun after previously admitting to drug possession, he was ultimately able to go forward with the purchase because the FBI background check took longer than three days.
Roof wasn’t the only one — according to FBI data, 4,170 guns were sold to prohibited buyers in 2016 because of that loophole. Gun sellers are legally allowed to proceed with a firearm sale if the background check is not completed within three days. In February, the U.S. House passed a bill that would extend that period to ten days. It’s unclear if HR 1112 will pass the Senate.

Crifasi says there are holes in the gun background check system run by the FBI, NICS or the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“We know that there are delays in records being reported into the system and we know that sometimes records don't get reported at all — maybe mental health records or one government agency not reporting into the federal system — and that can create gaps where people who are prohibited aren't identified and screened out,” Crifasi said. “So when you have a comprehensive background check law by itself that relies on that system with those inherent weaknesses, you're not getting the same benefit as you would if you give law enforcement more time and the ability to look at state and local records in addition to the federal system.”

The nine states that currently have licensing requirements are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, as well as Washington, D.C.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Jamie Raskin (both D-Md.) introduced the Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act on Friday. The bill would create a federal grant program to incentivize state and local governments to create permit-to-purchase laws before obtaining a handgun.

Similar bills have been introduced before, but have not been signed into law.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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