The Case Against Background Checks

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 2.14.27 PMIn the aftermath of the Senate’s failed push to stop universal background checks, Obama and the liberal media attacked those who voted against the bill. Obama called their actions “shameful”; Pierce Morgan called them “Pathetic, gutless cowards”. But these insults aside, background checks are a terrible idea. We should be fighting to eliminate them, not expand them.

Background checks in theory prevent three categories of people from buying a gun: convicted felons, those convicted of domestic abuse, and those with a dangerous mental illness.  On the surface that sounds fine. But, because of the mess that is our criminal system, background checks mostly prevent innocent citizens from buying a gun to defend themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, most convicted felons aren’t violent. In many states, for instance, smoking marijuana in certain areas is a felony. This is something Obama apparently overlooked while attacking opponents of background checks. As a teen, he smoked marijuana in high school; in Hawaii, that’s a felony.

Let’s pretend Obama hadn’t gotten lucky, and had been caught smoking. Forget presidential aspirations; does Mr. Obama honestly believe his youthful mistake should disqualify him from even owning a gun?

This is the unpleasant truth: the definition of ‘felony’ is so broad that background checks stop millions of citizens from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights. It’s a felony, for instance, to snort cocaine. I’m not advocating drug use, but a lot of students in college try hard drugs at least once. Should we deny them their right to defend themselves, based on what they once did at a party?

Selling raw milk is also a felony. So is working on a farm without authorization. So is indecent exposure if you do it three times. We’ve all heard cases of late-night streaking dares. They can be either funny or stupid, but should streakers really be stopped from ever owning a gun?

6.5% of the US population, or around 19 million citizens, have a felony conviction. Less than a quarter of these are violent convictions. Do we really want to stop 19 million citizens from ever defending themselves, in many cases because they smoked marijuana or made some other trivial mistake?

Of course, critics contend, many felons are actually violent. About 5 million felons were put in prison for good reason—assault, murder, rape, etc. We absolutely do not want these people to have guns, and background checks do stop some of them. But only some. Background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Columbine shooters (who were underage and used a straw dealer) or the Newtown shooter, who had no criminal record or history of mental illness. Not every would-be murderer has a violent history. And even for those that do, straw dealers and other workarounds allow many criminals to circumvent background checks.

That said, background checks absolutely do stop some violent criminals from buying a gun.  Not every criminal has access to straw dealers. Obama claims that background checks stopped 2 million people from buying guns in the past 20 years. Most of these were probably non-violent felons—pot smokers who wanted to defend themselves, for instance. Some were hardened criminals, who bought their gun on the black market when the legal market denied them. But some of these 2 million people were probably criminals who tried to get a gun and, thanks to background checks, couldn’t arm themselves.

Background checks are often put in place with the best of intentions—most gun-control advocates are sincere in their desire to bring down gun violence. And they do some good, even if it’s nowhere near as much as Obama claims. The problem is that, by stopping millions of non-violent felons from defending themselves, background checks do much more harm than good.

The other two categories of people stopped by background checks—domestic abusers, those with a history of mental illness—are admittedly not in the same class as felons. No-one was ever declared mentally ill because they streaked. But while keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is a good idea, once again one must wonder at how broad the prohibition is. If you’re suicidal, for instance, a court could rule you mentally ill. Ten years later, should you still not be allowed to own a gun?

For domestic abusers I have no sympathy; they absolutely should not own guns. But they’re a relatively small demographic being punished by a too-broad law.

Guns are the best tool for self-defense we have. If you’re walking alone at night and someone assaults you, a gun can save your life. If a criminal breaks into your house, a gun can stop him while the cops are still miles away.  Why are we preventing innocent citizens from defending themselves, because they once smoked marijuana?  Why does someone who streaks and is caught no longer have the right to arm himself?

We should be fighting to roll back background checks, not expand them. The 46 Senators who voted against universal background checks should be commended for standing up for our right to defend ourselves.

If you would like to get involved with opposing future background checks, these are the best groups to contact. Like many interest groups, their rhetoric can be extreme; but they are extremely effective at getting things done:, which has individual state chapters like this one for South Carolina and this one for Colorado. for gun rights at the federal level.                                         
Colorado Gun Owners                                                                                                                     And if you still believe background checks are the best option, I’d recommend the Brady Center. Just don’t tell them I sent you…


4 thoughts on “The Case Against Background Checks

  1. jurmond

    “For domestic abusers I have no sympathy; they absolutely should not own guns.” Assuming, of course, that the domestic abuse actually happened and was actually abuse.

    Claiming domestic abuse is sometimes a divorce strategy. I’ve read stories of women who were advised by their attorney to claim abuse, regardless of whether or not it happened.

    We should also re-examine what qualifies as abuse. In one case, a Police officer was called to the scene of a domestic disturbance. A couple was verbally arguing. At one point, the guy wanted to leave and he went towards the door. The woman reached out to block him, he brushed into her, and he was arrested for abuse. Literally any physical contact, no matter how small, can be considered abuse. If it is witnessed by the police, it can be almost impossible to avoid arrest and conviction .

    Sadly, physical contact isn’t even necessary to commit “abuse”. In another case, a guy was on new meds and had an emotional outburst. During the outburst, he threw a book at a wall – at a wall, not a person. However, it was a scary moment. Mere intimidation can qualify as an ‘assault’ even without physical contact. He never beat his wife, he just had a bad mood amplified by the wrong meds. Should he be prohibited for the rest of his life?

    It is unfortunate we have such cliche views on domestic abuse while ignoring the realities.

    1. julianlibertarian Post author

      Those cases are definitely valid, but what we need in that case is better judges. I do think the vast majority of domestic abusers are actually violent and have forfeited their right to handle a gun.You’re right, a few people are convicted of domestic abuse who don’t deserve it; but I think the good done by disarming violent domestic abusers outweighs the bad done by disarming the few whose conviction was asinine.

  2. DanManEllen

    There is another issue, methinks. How do we include mental illness in background checks without violating the medical privacy of the mentally ill or anyone else? It’s a difficult question. It’s also amazing to me that you can be a felon without having been convicted of any violent act. Background checks may have their purpose in a world in which we have a better system of distinguishing between people who are violent and people who are not, but, as you eloquently state, our legal system is currently broken.

    As well, I think we should distinguish between guns for hunting, biathlons, and the like, and assault weapons (I think some forms of assault weapons should be legal because they are probably more effective for keeping facilities protected). As for handguns, it’s a gray area as far as whether or not people with a violence charge on their record should get to own them or not because all people have a right to self-defense. If I have a conviction for brawling from when I was eighteen (I do not, of course), does that mean I won’t change at all as a person by the time I turn sixty?

    1. julianlibertarian Post author

      That’s a good point about people with violent charges. Many formerly violent people reform (ex. Malcolm X). On the one hand, I can see the utilitarian concerns for letting violent people have guns. On the other hand, people change, and your rights shouldn’t vanish just because you made 1 mistake (ex. brawling when 18).


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