Monday, January 11, 2016

How Much Do Background Checks Help With Preventing Mass Shootings?

Last week, President Obama gave a speech on gun control in response to dealing with the gun violence that takes place in the United States of America. Let's forget for a moment that the prevalence of mass shootings depends on how you define "mass shooting" or that the Congressional Research Service published a report last year showing that there historically has been no epidemic in mass shootings. Per the most recent CDC data on leading causes of death, gun-related deaths account for 1.2 percent deaths in the United States (32,383 out of 2.59 million deaths). Out of gun-related deaths, only about a third are gun homicides. Mass shootings account for about 1.5 percent of overall gun-related homicides. Mass shootings account for 0.018 percent of overall deaths in the United States, yet it is somehow politically expedient for President Obama to pass an executive order to increase gun control to stop something that causes 0.018 percent of deaths in the country. Part of this executive order included more stringent background checks.

Background checks have particularly been prevalent in American society since the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994. The idea behind such legislation is that it would screen out would-be murderers from perpetrating such heinous acts. However, this is not enough for gun control advocates since they would like to close the "gun show loophole," which is supposed to decrease the rate of illicit firearm transactions. Background checks are so intuitive, even for libertarians. How intuitive? It is the type of "common-sense gun legislation" that even 79 percent of Republicans are on board with expansive background checks. I do have apprehensions of such databases because collecting names, addresses, criminal records, and mental history can be misused or abused. Conversely, there is a negative externality argument to be made in the sense that if we can prevent deaths with a minimal loss of freedom or privacy, then I, much like a majority of Americans, support expansive background least in theory. Before officially supporting greater expansion of background checks, I have to ask whether expansive background checks would help decrease the gun homicide rate, specifically with regards to mass shootings.

The studies showing the effectiveness of background checks have generally had ambivalent findings. There was a study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research (Rudolph et al., 2015) showing that background checks in Connecticut decreased gun violence by 40 percent, although it seems to have its fair share of methodological flaws. Johns Hopkins also released another study (Webster et al., 2013) showing that background checks have a positive effect, even though there was a "stand your ground" law that passed in 2007 that is getting in the way of distinguishing between correlation and causation. The Left-leaning Center for American Progress (Gerney et al., 2013) also tries to show a link between gun violence and weak gun laws. The academic consensus on the matter is hardly there. A 2000 study (Ludwig and Cook, 2000) shows that the background checks from the Brady Law of 1994 didn't have a statistically significant effect. The same goes with a 2003 review from the CDC.

Even with the aforementioned research, there has not been any research about the link between background checks that include private transfers of guns and mass shootings....that is, until earlier this month. The Crime Prevention Research Center (Lott, 2016) published research asking if there is a link between the two. Lott found that not only is there no evidence that background checks reduced the risk of mass shootings, but that not a single mass shooting would have been prevented by background checks. Some might take issue with this study not simply because of the findings, but because of the definition of "mass shooting" that Lott uses. The definition of "mass shooting" can be quite contentious because the definition determines how many or few incidents are included in the count. If you do something like define a mass shooting as a incident in which four or more are killed or injured by gunfire, you are going to calculate a jaw-dropping figure in which there were more mass shootings than days of the year in 2015. However, such a figure is broad because it doesn't even bother to take in the context of the incident. This is why Lott opted for the narrower definition, which, by the way, is the one that the FBI uses. The FBI defines a mass shooting as one in which four people are murdered (note that it excludes those who are injured) either simultaneously or over a short period of time. The FBI also removes gang and drug violence from the numbers (which is important considering that over 90 percent of gun homicides are committed by gangs and/or while a felony is being perpetrated), as well as gun-related shootings in which it appears that others are not put into peril (e.g., an individual who decides to publicly commit suicide in a parking lot). The FBI definition reduces the number of 2000-2015 mass shootings to 47 mass shootings.

Whether or not we like the narrow definition of mass shooting that Lott uses, this should give us some time to pause about just how effective background checks can be. Since the Brady Act of 1994, 2.1 million background checks were denied. Does this mean that 2.1 million crimes were prevented? Not really. Being denied an application to buy a gun through licit channels simply means one can buy a gun through illicit means. It would be nice to think that background checks choke off the supply of firearms in the underground firearms market. However, a recent Duke University study points out that most criminals purchase their firearms through social networks, not through gun shows or federally licensed dealers, which reaffirms the notion that criminals will simply find ways to bypass background checks. It would be nice to have better data to affirm the effectiveness of background checks, but at least with what we have, maybe Obama should stop and think twice before increasing background checks.

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