Skip to main content

A background check even the NRA could love?

By Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Special to CNN
updated 12:46 PM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
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

Editor's note: Philip J. Cook is ITT / Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. Jens Ludwig is McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at the University of Chicago and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. They are are co-editors, with Justin McCrary, of "Controlling Crime: Strategies and Tradeoffs" (University of Chicago Press).This week, CNN TV and CNN.com will take an in-depth look at "Guns Under Fire: A CNN Special Report on Background Checks."

(CNN) -- 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.

Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig
Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

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?

Palmieri: Pres 'feels deeply' re gun law
Risch: Background checks are inefficient
Two years later, Giffords' targets shift

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.

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT