Universal Background Checks Won't Prevent Illegal Gun Sales

Universal Background Checks Won't Prevent Illegal Gun Sales
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The folks at Sandy Hook Promise are on board with the Democrats’ new push for gun control in Congress, and have already issued a press release proclaiming that, with violent crime and homicides sharply up in 2020, it’s more important than ever for Congress to approve a universal background check bill that’s just been introduced in the House.


The only problem with their argument is the fact that’s all wrong. The group states that enacting a universal background check law can (not “would”, mind you) “help prevent more shootings nationwide,” but they never explain how exactly that would happen, given the fact that the vast majority of criminals obtain their guns through illicit means.

Would a background check bill have had any impact on the thieves that rammed a truck into a gun store in Maryland on Tuesday morning, for instance?

Two suspects drove a large pick-up truck through a sporting goods store in Waldorf to steal firearms early Tuesday morning, Charles County Sheriff’s Department said.


The incident happened around 1:30 a.m. at a Fred’s Outdoors gun store located in the 2800 block of Crain Highway, police said.


Officers quickly responded to the scene after a 9-1-1 call was made that an alarm sounded off at the store. When police arrived at the scene, the suspects were already gone.

A Charles County Public Information Officer told WUSA9 that it likely only took a couple of minutes from when the alarm sounded to the officers’ arrival for the suspects to get in and get out since there was a small delay between the alarm and the emergency call.

Of course not. In fact, universal background checks can’t prevent any illegal gun transfer between private citizens. Let me repeat that again. In fact, I’m going to bold it this time.


Universal background checks can’t prevent any illegal gun transfer between private citizens.

At best a universal background check law allows for criminal sanctions after the fact, but even then prosecutions are extraordinarily uncommon. Heck, prosecutions are rare even when someone fails a background check.

It’s also important to note that some of those prosecutions for failed background checks can come as a result of what amounts to a paperwork error. A few years ago the York Daily Record ran a very interesting story looking at prosecutions for illegal firearms transfers in Pennsylvania, and found some real problems with how the system is working.

Defense attorneys who’ve handled these cases in York County said most of those getting charged with this crime are often just making an honest mistake on the background check forms. The questions that appear to trip up the most people are whether they’ve been convicted of a crime that could have carried a sentence of more than one year in jail, or if they’ve ever been involuntarily committed.

“I have yet to see any of my cases where the person was intentionally trying to deceive the system,” said Mike Fenton, an attorney in York County.

Farley Holt, a defense attorney in York, said those who were sentenced to minimal jail time or probation in the past do not think much about the question. Sometimes, the conviction at issue was from 20 years ago, he said.

It’s a “one-size-fits-all law,” he said. But the problem, Holt said, is that someone who was involuntarily committed as a teenager is put in the same category as a person who did 10 years in state prison for attempted murder.

In Pennsylvania, background checks are not required in private transfers of rifles or shotguns, and do not happen if a weapon is bought illegally. For the most part, Holt said, these are people who do not realize they can’t own a gun, and they’re trying to get one the “right way.”

To Joe Gothie, a defense attorney in York, the fact that sale or transfer of firearms is a felony does not give the whole picture.

The offense gravity score, one of the factors that’s used in the sentencing guidelines, is an eight on a one-to-14 scale. That means sale or transfer of firearms is rated the same as homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, or theft of more than $100,000.

“The penalties are so extremely serious immediately,” Gothie said. “Someone who legitimately just screwed up, do they deserve to go to state prison over it?”


Keep in mind, in Pennsylvania private transfers of firearms don’t require a background check. If they did, presumably even more individuals would have faced prosecution and prison time for honest mistakes.

The new federal background check bill introduced in Congress also carries a one-year prison sentence, and will almost certainly lead to people being put behind bars who had no criminal intent whatsoever. And again, those people will be the ones who actually went through the process of finding a gun shop that will conduct background checks on private transfers of firearms.

Meanwhile, the criminals who’ll simply ignore the law won’t have to worry about any consequences, unless perhaps they’re caught with a gun that they’re not allowed to own. In that case, however, they’re also almost certainly going to be facing far more serious charges, in which case the unlawful transfer of a firearm charge will only come into play if it’s offered as part of a plea bargain; reducing the amount of time that a violent criminal spends behind bars rather than increasing it.

Sure, many Americans support the idea of universal background check laws, but they also haven’t given much thought to the matter. When voters start digging into the idea, you don’t find 96% percent support. You find universal background check referendums failing by wide margins (which is what happened in Maine in 2016) or passing by the slimmest of votes after supporters misled voters about how the measure would work (which is what happened in Nevada that same year).


The Democrats who are calling for a re-imagining of our criminal justice system are the same ones who’ll soon be voting to turn the common practice of private gun transfers into a new, non-violent federal offense punishable by prison time. They’ll increase the potential for abuse by prosecutors, putting people behind bars and saddling them with a criminal record for a paperwork violation. To top it all off, they won’t prevent a single illicit private transfer from taking place.

A universal background check bill isn’t the answer to reduce the rise in violent crime that began last year. At best it’s another tool for police and prosecutors to use and abuse after the fact. At worst it will put people in prison who don’t deserve to be there. Our current background check laws have problems that need to be addressed, but the Democrats’ new legislation would make them exponentially worse instead of better.


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