Has the Brady Law Worked?
The Brady Campaign has a report today commemorating 20 years of background checks for guns bought at licensed dealers. It says that the law stopped 2.1 million firearm purchases. "Countless lives have been saved, and crimes have been prevented thanks to the Brady law," it claims.
If the law has indeed saved any lives, this is the wrong way to go about proving it. As I wrote previously:
Actually blocking sales is not the point of background checks. In order for a sale to be blocked, a prohibited buyer needs to willingly fill out the paperwork for a gun purchase and have it run through the system. Doing this is incredibly stupid, so it almost never happens. When it does happen, it's usually because the person didn't realize he was prohibited. (For example, his crime was a long time ago, or he was dishonorably discharged from the military.) Prosecutions rarely result.
That's the problem with touting blocked purchases, even if 2.1 million over 20 years sounds impressive: About 94 percent of failed checks are "not referred to field, overturned, or canceled" when law enforcement looks into them, and some more cases fall apart after that, too. These folks aren't necessarily allowed to buy guns, but they also aren't seen as threatening enough to prosecute, and they're left free to pursue guns elsewhere if that's what they want.
As I've also said in this space, it matters greatly what a criminal's second-best option is. If guns are easily available without going through a licensed dealer and passing a background check -- by, for example, buying from a private seller -- illegal sales are rerouted rather than squelched. (Think of it like closing a Burger King to fight obesity when there's a McDonald's next door, as opposed to closing the only fast-food joint in a ten-mile radius.) Indeed, most criminals didn't get their guns from dealers even before the Brady law. Even Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, two researchers often labeled "anti-gun," failed to find any crime-reduction effect when they compared states affected by the Brady law with those that had previously passed similar measures at the state level.
The report advocates universal background checks, as opposed to checks only at licensed dealers, dredging up the widely cited if highly disputed statistic that 40 percent of gun sales take place between private parties. But whether the correct number is 40 percent or much lower, I think this is a considerably more promising approach.
Well, if it's implemented correctly. If we could require checks to be conducted before guns change hands, and if we could trace crime guns and consult records to prove that people didn't follow the law, we could make it a bit harder for criminals to get their hands on guns. But those are very difficult things to do, both practically and politically.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen