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Local Background Checks Can Reduce Deaths

Reduces Firearm Suicide, Homicide Rates

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States that perform background checks at the local level before allowing someone to purchase a firearm can significantly reduce suicide and homicide rates compared with states that rely on federal-level background checks only.

Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found that background checks conducted by law enforcement on the local level were linked to a 27 percent lower firearm suicide rate and a 22 percent lower homicide rate among adults older than 21.

The History of Background Checks

Background checks prior to purchasing firearms were established in 1993 when the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed by Congress. No one who is under indictment or who has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison can purchase a firearm.

The law also prevents someone from buying a handgun if they meet any of the following circumstances:

  • Is a fugitive from the law.
  • Uses controlled substances.
  • Has been declared mentally defective.
  • Has been committed to a mental institution.
  • Dishonorably discharged from the military.
  • Has renounced their U.S. citizenship.
  • Is subject to a restraining order.
  • Has been convicted of domestic violence.

How Background Checks Are Conducted

The Brady Law declares that every state must consult the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which searches all federal databases, before anyone is allowed to purchase a firearm. This is the absolute minimum check that must be performed. For some states, that is the only background check that is conducted.

Some states have assigned the background check duties to a statewide agency which conducts a search of state records also. Some states use a local law enforcement agency to do further background checks. States where state and local law enforcement agencies are used to do the checks see lower deaths rates, the research showed.

Lower Homicide, Suicide Rates

According to the study, states that performed only federal-level checks saw a firearm suicide rate of 11.64 people per every 100,000 in the population. States that performed state-level or local-level checks were found to have substantially lower rates of firearm suicides, at 8.45 and 5.74 per 100,000, respectively.

A similar trend was found with firearm homicide rates, with 4.28 reported per 100,000 for federal checks; 4.02 per 100,000 for state checks; and 2.81 per 100,000 for local checks.

At this time, 21 states do federal checks only, 17 states do state-level checks also and only 12 states do local-level background checks.

The Cost to Society

"As with suicides, the reduction in firearm homicide rates associated with local-level background checks, if confirmed, would also have an important impact on public health and economic outcomes," said Peter Layde, MD, the lead researcher, in a news release. "Assaults involving a firearm are more lethal and more costly for patients and hospital systems than non-gun assaults."

"This is the first study to analyze the effects of differences among states doing background checks for firearm purchase," said Dr. Layde. "We hope that future research will evaluate the impact of changes in the background checking process that may emerge in the next few years."

The study was published in the May 2008 online edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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