It’s a catchy title: “91%.” However, it stands for something far less significant.
Local documentary filmmaker John Richie has certainly adopted a theme. His previous effort, “Shell Shocked,” aimed to portray the gritty reality of youth gun violence in New Orleans. He now plans to follow up that film with “91%,” which is being pitched as “a film about gun background checks and the people whose lives they impact.”
Where does the “91%” come from? It comes from a 2013 national poll showing that 91% of Americans support universal background checks for firearms sales. Under existing federal law, all firearms sales from firearms dealers require a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
This excepts sales or transfers between non-dealers, i.e., isolated “one-off” transactions between private citizens who do not normally deal in firearms and therefore are not required to have a federal firearms license (FFL). These are typically referred to as “private sales.” Often these sales occur between friends and family members, although they can also occur on the internet or at gun shows where the buyer and seller are not personally acquainted.
That’s where the problem arises. Polling simply asks about “universal background checks,” but it doesn’t specifically address the issue of private sales and transfers. Once you start talking about making a criminal out of somebody who simply sells a gun to a friend, the issue becomes far less cut-and-dried.
On top of that, many laws mandating universal background checks include broad definitions of “transfers” that would include temporarily loaning a gun to another person, even within the confines of a firing range. It’s doubtful 91% of Americans support that.
Yet the bigger issue is that private sales have little to do with violent crime. There isn’t a decent body of credible, up-to-date research on the sources of guns used in violent crime or those obtained by prohibited persons. Nevertheless, what data does exist shows that very few guns wind up in the hands of criminals by virtue of private sales.
A 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of state prison inmates convicted of firearm crimes is typical. It found that 79% acquired their firearms from “street/illegal sources” or “friends or family,” categories that include theft, illicit sales, and straw purchases. Only 12% acquired their gun through a FFL dealer requiring an NICS check. A vanishingly small 1.7% acquired their firearm from a gun show or flea market.
It’s pretty clear than some criminals do obtain their weapons through private sales, but not very many. Instead, their guns overwhelmingly come from straw purchases (having somebody without a record purchase their gun for them), through theft, or from a black market dealer.
There have been some studies put out by some particularly jaundiced sources purporting to show a negative correlation between violent crime rates and the strength of background checks, but given the lack of any evidence that private sales are a significant source of prohibited firearms sales, it all comes down to the old maxim: Correlation doesn’t equal causation.
It’s readily apparent that the focus the anti-gun crowd has placed on universal background checks has less to do with their potential impact on violent crime than it does with universal background checks being low-hanging fruit. On a superficial level, people tend to support universal background checks, while other gun control proposals tend to be broadly unpopular.
The problem with universal background checks is that they attempt to regulate low-level sales between innocent parties. Unless enforcement is highly selective, most convictions for violating universal background check laws will be punishing an essentially victimless crime. They may not prevent any violent crime, but they create another class of criminal.
New Orleans obviously has a problem with violent crime, but forcing private sellers to go through an FFL holder isn’t going to help solve that problem. It’s focusing on an instrumentality and the means of obtaining it, not the criminal or the crime itself.
Ultimately, we need to be discussing real solutions to violent crime, not the old sawhorses of anti-gun interest groups. That’s a more complicated endeavor, but it will be well worth the effort.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.