National Press Club

Gun control expert advocates federal background checks

March 15, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich | lorna2@verizon.net

Daniel Webster, director of Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called for universal background checks for gun sales at a March 15 Newsmaker.

Daniel Webster, director of Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called for universal background checks for gun sales at a March 15 Newsmaker.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Daniel Webster, professor and director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told a March 15 National Press Club Newsmaker audience that federal universal background checks for gun purchasers would reduce deaths from firearms.

He asserted that the political climate may be right to push forward background-check legislation.

Agreement on the issue can be found across political parties and between gun owners and others, according to Webster. A January poll conducted by Webster and his colleagues revealed that 89 percent of the public and 74 percent of National Rifle Association (NRA) members support the checks.

The survey found more divergence on banning assault weapons than on mandating background checks. Support among Republicans on assault-weapon restrictions was 52 percent, among Independents 64 percent and among Democrats 87 percent.

Opponents of background checks fear they imply a registry of gun owners, which Webster said would not necessarily occur. Under current federal law the FBI must destroy records from background checks within 24 hours of completion of the review.

He reported additional proposals offered during a mid-January summit of experts on gun control: facilitate all sales through a federally licensed dealer, repeal laws that hamper prosecution of dealers and manufacturers, ban the sale of assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

Individuals with mental illness, criminal records and a history of domestic violence -- as well as those under the age of 20 -- should be barred from purchasing guns, Webster said.

Gun control critics maintain that new laws won't deter gun violence.

Webster cited specific state laws as evidence that gun legislation works. In New York, which has restrictive laws, the street price of handguns is four to five times the price in a state such as Georgia, he said.

When Missouri repealed restrictive laws in 2007, the rate of gun homicides increased 25 percent while the national rate dropped by 10 percent and the rate in neighboring states by five percent, he said.

He noted that Jared Loughnew, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, legally owned a gun in Arizona but would probably not have been able to buy one in New Jersey, where background checks would have identified "red flags" in his background.

The United States records 31,000 deaths from firearms annually, 60 percent of them suicides and only a small proportion accidental, according to Webster.

In one study, nearly 80 percent of prison inmates who committed crimes with guns acquired their weapons from unlicensed private sellers, he said.

When asked about mass shootings, such as the one in Newton, Conn., Webster said they were difficult to counter because the legal restrictions on gun ownerships targeted "rational actors."

He also emphasized the need to focus on lower-profile gun crimes.

"We can't lose sight of these everyday shootings," he said.

Webster advocated personalizing guns in a manner that limited their use by anyone but the owners. He compared reducing deaths from firearms to the successful reduction in deaths from motor vehicles.

Automobile deaths declined both from a focus on drivers - strict DUI enforcement, for example - and from safer cars. Likewise background checks focus on gun owners, but safer guns could be designed as well.