Dec 082014
 

Owen Courreges

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.

  • Deux amours

    Are you going to be in the movie? Have you seen the script?

    • Owen Courrèges

      Deux,

      The movie hasn’t been filmed yet; it’s just in the Kickstarter stage. I haven’t misrepresented anything about the proposed film; I’m merely addressing its apparent aim, which is to advocate for universal background checks.

      • Deux amours

        Patience is a virtue. I trust you see nothing wrong with the advocacy of universal background checks, even as you disagree. Are you trying to dissuade the angels behind this proposed film?

        • Owen Courrèges

          Deux,

          I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from anything (I mean, I wouldn’t have linked to their Kickstarter page if I was trying to squelch them). I simply noticed the premise of a proposed film and decided to offer my contrary opinion on the issue.

          • Deux amours

            Just think, you’ll get to offer your contrary opinion a second time when the movie is released.

          • Owen Courrèges

            Deux,

            Perhaps, if it merits additional response. Otherwise, I think I’ve made my case pretty well here.

          • Deux amours

            I write because your premature concerns about an unmade film is of little value to uptown residents. Your thoughts about universal background checks, a truly remote possibility, is self indulgent as is your self congratulations.

          • Owen Courrèges

            Deux,

            They aren’t “premature.” The basic premise of the film is being publicized, and that’s what I’m responding to. As for universal background checks, I don’t consider the possibility to be remote — a number of states have passed universal background check laws and legislation has been proposed repeatedly at the federal level.

            Finally, as for me being “self indulgent,” that sounds like an insult from somebody either unable or unwilling to engage my actual arguments.

          • Deux amours

            It was an insult, and I am not prepared to debate your criticisms of an unmade movie.

  • Craig

    “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.”

    A sale/transfer of a vehicle between two individuals is regulated. Shouldn’t be a “problem” to regulate the sale/transfer of a gun. I realize your columns of late show a zeal for minimal regulation but it seems a little trite to suggest we shouldn’t have universal background checks just because we’d potentially punish someone for a victimless crime. Perhaps we should stop enforcing laws that require owners to register their vehicles. After all, that’s also a “victimless” crime until the time comes that you want to track down a get-away car. As many conservatives I know often say “nothing to worry about if you got nothing to hide.” That statement of course is never said in relation to guns for some reason…

    • Owen Courrèges

      Craig,

      >>A sale/transfer of a vehicle between two individuals is regulated. Shouldn’t be a “problem” to regulate the sale/transfer of a gun.<>[I]t seems a little trite to suggest we shouldn’t have universal background checks just because we’d potentially punish someone for a victimless crime.<<

      That's part of it, but it's not the only thing. The other elephant in the room is the fact that these are low-level transactions that are generally completely above-board and I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that they're a significant source of guns used in crime. Accordingly, I think a simply cost/benefit analysis makes universal background checks appear fairly dubious.

      Of course on top of all of this is the fact that firearms ownership, unlikely ownership of practically anything else, is a constitutionally-protected right. Even if universal background checks are constitutional (and I'll grant that they probably are) that means we should be more circumspect about regulation.

  • Mike Flood

    The answer to the question you posed in the tittle is, as you stated, no. During the 70’s and 80’s, when I was involved in law enforcement, I rarely arrested anyone with a legally obtained firearm. The biggest problem then and today are stolen weapons. It’s a double edge sword. At least 50% of people have the legally obtained weapon for home and personal protection. The owner feels that if the weapon is not easy to access in an emergency, it will not do him or her any good. Locks, fingerprint reading devices, etc do not instill that feeling of easy access. Since it is a 2nd amendment right that will never change, I think the answer lies in extremely severe punishment for committing a crime while armed.

  • ConcernedinNOLA

    I am astounded by your obsession with criticizing anyone who seeks to reduce gun violence. Are seeking an NRA endorsement and $$$ for a run at political office?

    Please try to be more accurate with your “facts.”

    The most recent bi-partisan proposal for universal background checks to close the trade show and internet sale loophole did NOT apply to gun loans. Even the NRA acknowledged that with respect to the Manchin-Toomey bill.

    As reported by Frontline news, “Responding to a question of how they obtained their most recent handgun, the arrestees answered as follows: 56% said they paid cash; 15% said it was a gift; 10% said they borrowed it; 8% said they traded for it; while 5% only said that they stole it.”
    EVEN if your 1.7% statistic was correct and relevant, wouldn’t it be a good thing to at least try to prevent those felons from obtaining guns? Can’t we at least TRY??? And what about the domestic abusers, convicted stalkers, and diagnosed psychopaths, shouldn’t they be required to pass a background check before buying a gun at a trade show or on the internet?

    • Owen Courrèges

      ConcernedinNOLA,

      >>The most recent bi-partisan proposal for universal background checks to close the trade show and internet sale loophole did NOT apply to gun loans. Even the NRA acknowledged that with respect to the Manchin-Toomey bill.<>”Responding to a question of how they obtained their most recent handgun, the arrestees answered as follows: 56% said they paid cash; 15% said it was a gift; 10% said they borrowed it; 8% said they traded for it; while 5% only said that they stole it.”<<

      This doesn't really contradict the study I cited. When an arrestee says that they paid "cash" for a gun, that virtually always means that they bought it off the street from an illegal source, not an FFL dealer. Guns bought on the street are generally stolen or otherwise illegal, and thus the dealers are performing so-called "illicit sales." Those transactions are already illegal.

      The only thing universal background checks add to the mix is to make illegal those transactions that aren't already regulated, i.e., isolated sales between non-dealers of legal firearms (i.e., private sales). My point here is that those transactions aren't worth regulating. You'll harm innocent parties more than you'll hurt guilty ones.

      The hysteria about the "gun show loophole" is an example of this. Gun shows require booth holders to have an FFL and perform background checks because if you set up a booth to sell firearms, you're regulated as as firearms dealer. The only transactions that don't require a background check at a gun show would be where two people get to talking, and one wants to buy the other's firearm, thus initiating a private sale. These transactions aren't very common to begin with, and are an extremely atypical means for a criminal to obtain a firearm.

      So why shouldn't we try? Because writing legislation with a "we have to do something" attitude is how bad laws get passed. I don't think requiring background checks for private sales would be beneficial overall. I think you'd make criminals out of more innocent people and you wouldn't keep guns out of the hands of a significant number of criminals. At least that's what the numbers say to me.

  • ConcernedinNOLA

    There are so many inaccuracies here that I don’t know where to start. Exactly what laws “mandating universal background checks” are you referencing? Certainly not the bipartisan bill defeated by the NRA last Spring. Even the NRA admitted that it would not have required background checks for guns that are loaned to others.
    Background checks are not implemented to convict gun dealers – they are implemented because statistics overwhelmingly show that background checks reduce gun violence. Even if your 1.7% statistic was accurate – don’t you want to keep guns out of the hands of those felons?
    You also ignore the fact that background checks also keep guns out of the hands of convicted stalkers, domestic abusers, and psychopaths.
    Irresponsible, one-sided reporting on your part.

    • Owen Courrèges

      ConcernedinNOLA,

      See my response above.

      To recap, we’re only talking about private sales here. I’m not the least bit opposed to background checks in the general sense; they certainly do prevent prohibited persons from obtaining firearms. We know this because tens of thousands of rejections are made by FFL holders every year. However, universal background checks are another matter.

      My point is that criminals very rarely get their guns through private sales, and sales to criminals make up a tiny fraction of private sales. Accordingly, in order to get at an incredibly tiny number of prohibited transactions, you’d be making criminals out of a large number of innocent sellers. I don’t see that as good policy, and even if I did, it wouldn’t change the fact that universal background checks would not significantly impact violent crime.

  • pfvayda

    Owen: why don’t you all start sending our mayor and his office the regular Uptown Messenger? He seems to be out of touch with what really goes on in the neighborhoods of our/his city. Just a thought.

  • Overbrook

    Sorry , but I don’t see the problem with background checks. They are hardly an undue burden. Just a NRA talking point.
    What they are is reasonable because, ultimately, if you’re legal you can get your gun.