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A background check even the NRA could love?

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Story highlights

  • Philip Cook, Jens Ludwig: Most Americans want gun sales to require background checks
  • They say the NRA opposes this, but such checks could happen without gun registration
  • They says licensed dealers could do checks, allow sale (or not) without naming buyer
  • Writers: It's one way for states to keep track of guns; this could bring compromise

Everyone agrees that we don't want criminals to get guns. And in the debate over gun control, the vast majority of the public also agrees that requiring background checks for all gun transactions -- even private sales at gun shows or between acquaintances -- would achieve this end.

The National Rifle Association and its allies oppose this idea because they believe a federal background check requirement will lead to gun registration. This, they argue, is a violation of the privacy of gun owners and could one day help the government confiscate all guns.

We believe it is possible to have an effective background-check system in the United States for all gun transactions without requiring gun registration. There is no intrinsic tradeoff here between privacy and public safety.

Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig

Opinion: Why the NRA fights background checks

Why do we need a universal background check requirement?

Right now, federal law requires background checks only for gun sales made by licensed federal firearms dealers (FFLs), not private parties. Most gun sales involve a licensed dealer, but not when criminals are the buyers. Surveys of inmates in jail or prison regularly show that 80% to 90% got their crime guns from a family member, acquaintance or "the street" -- transactions for which federal law does not require a background check. That's the mother of all loopholes.

    Requiring background checks for non-FFL sales in the secondary market can make it harder for criminals to get guns.

    Disconnect on background checks

    Someone with a gun to sell could avoid any liability by paying a small fee to a licensed dealer to conduct the background check on the buyer. (In California, which has had this system in place since 1991, the fee is $10.) If the buyer happened to be a felon or a fugitive, then the licensed dealer would be required to block the sale.

    Those who oppose requiring a universal background check worry the only way the government would be able to enforce such a law would be by requiring all gun owners to register their guns with the government. But that view reflects a lack of imagination. There are other possibilities.

    Would background checks have stopped recent mass shootings?

    For one thing, the licensed federal firearms dealer who presides over a private sale could be required to report the transaction to the state without giving the name of the buyer. Each state could then keep a database of gun transfers, including the serial number of the gun and the identity of the seller. That database would not be a registry because it would not identify any current owners. But it would facilitate police investigations.

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    Another possibility would not require any reporting on the part of the licensed dealer. Instead, gun owners themselves would be required to keep documentation on any transactions in which one of their guns was transferred to another person. That documentation could then help the police trace a gun through the chain of possession from first retail sale by a licensed dealer. If the gun were associated with a crime or a criminal, then police investigators might require previous owners to provide that documentation.

    Under this scheme, the vast majority of private sales would never be subject to investigation or even known to the authorities. But the police could do what they need to do to investigate gun crimes and to provide gun owners with an incentive to do background checks.

    Background checks: How do they work?

    Illinois already has a system similar to this in place; private citizens who resell their guns have to check to make sure that the other party has passed a background check and received a firearm owners identification card from the state police. They are also required to keep a record of the sale and to whom they sold their gun for 10 years. Interestingly, the NRA website says that it does not consider this aspect of Illinois state law as requiring "registration of firearms."

    We could all spend a lot of time and energy in the next few weeks arguing about the likelihood the federal government will ever try to take our guns or how to weigh the privacy of gun owners versus the need to reduce the carnage that takes place on our nation's city streets (and, as current events remind us, sometimes in our movie theaters and elementary schools as well). Or perhaps the best option, given what's at stake, is for us to find a creative compromise that would serve the immediate purpose of reducing gun violence without registration.

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