Editor’s Note: Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology and faculty affiliate at the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto. He is the author of “Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central” and is finishing a book about the health of non-fatal gunshot victims in the US. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
In the last month, we have witnessed a barrage of mass shootings across the United States. In each of three shootings – in Indianapolis, Boulder, and Atlanta – we learned that the suspects bought guns legally. Even worse, we learned after each of the three shootings that family members and friends had been concerned about these young men.
You can’t read these news stories and believe that US gun laws are working. There are plenty of ways to circumvent background checks through private sellers and other loopholes. When they are actually required, the criteria used to identify high-risk people prove inadequate to keeping guns out of their hands. A recent FBI study shows that 75% of mass shooters between 2000 and 2013 either bought their guns legally or already possessed them.
Buying a gun from a licensed dealer in America is too easy. Prospective gun owners fill out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Form 4473, which asks whether they have been convicted of a felony, involuntarily hospitalized by court order, or dishonorably discharged from the military, among other questions about their personal history. Dealers then share this information with the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, and a decision is typically relayed within minutes. These checks are not exhaustive enough and the suspects in the recent shootings in Indiana, Boulder and Atlanta sailed through this system, even though they had documented personal struggles, mental health histories or family members and friends who flagged them as unwell.
As an American living and working in Canada, I’ve had a chance to see a better system at work. Gun control laws aren’t perfect in Canada, and there are ongoing problems with gun violence north of the border, but the system up here is better at keeping guns out of the hands of people looking to use them for violence. This is evident in Canada’s firearm-homicide rates, which are a fraction of what they are in the US. In 2019, Canada’s firearm-homicide rate was less than a sixth of what it was in the US.
Canada’s federal licensing system is a big reason for this disparity. Buying a gun in Canada is like getting a driver’s license. You have to apply for a Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) – a process that involves a variety of background checks with a minimum 28-day waiting period for new applicants who do not have a valid firearms license. You have to take a safety training course. You have to provide personal references who can vouch for your character. You have to renew the license every five years or else you can be charged with unauthorized possession under the Firearms Act and Criminal Code.
Not only does this process help identify high-risk people at the time of purchase, it also provides a way for law enforcement to keep tabs on gun owners, whose lives continue evolving after they buy a gun. The Canadian system acknowledges that a person might experience trauma, suffer from acute mental illness and go through other life changes that would put them at risk of using a gun to commit violence against others or themselves. The US system is a one-time snapshot of a person’s life before they buy a gun. Licensing and renewal in Canada provide an evolving picture of a person’s changing risk profile over time.
Currently, 14 states in addition to DC have some form of licensing law; of those, 10 states have licensing in the form of “permit-to-purchase” requirements, which typically require prospective gun owners to apply directly to a state or local law enforcement agency to obtain a purchase permit first. Research by Kara Rudolph, Elizabeth Stuart, Jon Vernick and Daniel Webster shows that Connecticut’s 1995 “permit-to-purchase” handgun law was associated with an estimated 40% decrease in firearm-related homicides in the first decade it was in effect. Similarly, removing licensing requirements is associated with increases in suicides with firearms. A study by Cassandra Crifasi, John Speed Myers, Jon Vernick and Daniel Webster found that firearm suicides went up 16% after the removal of “permit-to-purchase” handgun laws in Missouri.
Talks about implementing a federal licensing system gained some traction a couple years ago when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Federal Firearm Licensing Bill, which would have expanded the criteria used to screen prospective gun buyers. Under this plan, attorneys general would have more information about prospective gun owners and could deny licenses to people who violate stalking restraining orders, as well as gun traffickers and people with histories of making threats of violence. Even though the National Rifle Association might try to tell you differently, these are not controversial early steps in a massive gun grab. These are modest expansions of a failing background check system. Unfortunately, this bill died in the Senate.
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In the wake of so many mass shootings, it’s easy to feel like there is no way out of this tragic mess. But there is a way forward. It begins with admitting that the current instant background check system isn’t working. It then requires a system that takes into account how people’s lives change over time and how their risks of committing violence ebb and flow with these changes. A federal licensing system is a modest start.