Background checks

Among its infamous package of gun-related measures passed last session, the Colorado Legislature issued a requirement that virtually all gun transfers – even those between private parties – first clear a background check for the weapon’s recipient. That stipulation was intended to close a potentially dangerous loophole that allowed individuals to trade guns without screening the purchaser for limiting circumstances that would apply in a retail transaction. In the first month that the law took effect, 10 would-be gun purchasers among the 561 background checks processed were denied. As small as those numbers are, they indicate that the requirement is effective in restricting sales to unqualified gun buyers.

They also suggest that the precision with which the law was crafted. Critics by turns claimed that the Legislature’s gun-related measures were either designed ultimately to do away with gun ownership among any and all residents, or be so impossible to enforce as to be completely ineffective. The July numbers hint that, instead, closer scrutiny of private sales is functioning as a barrier to inappropriate gun transfers and therefore doing exactly what it was intended to do in a very targeted way.

The 10 transfers denied may include some false positives that can be appealed or overturned, but factors such as a felony, active warrant or domestic abuse charge are among the triggers that result in a rejected background check. These are legitimate restrictions on gun ownership that apply in retail sales; identifying them in private sales is wholly appropriate and not onerously burdensome among parties to such a transfer. In fact, it protects all involved – the seller and purchaser, above all – by adding a layer of certainty to private transactions that have never been allowed for unqualified buyers, but never had an enforced background screening requirement. However small the numbers, it appears that the checks prevented those not allowed gun access from gaining that access. That was the bill’s intent.

Opponents and critics of the law argue that the small number of transactions prevented is not sufficient to justify the hassle the law creates. Perhaps not, but it ensured that everyone on both sides of any private transaction was acting in accordance with transfer laws. Those intent on engaging in an illegal gun transaction were not affected by the requirement and did not likely participate in it to begin with – but the fact that there are ways around a law is not a valid argument against its necessity or its effectiveness.

Whether the private transactions that were denied because of background checks translate into lives saved will be forever unknown. That hypothetical is not particularly relevant given what is known: The background check requirement prevented people not allowed to own a gun from gaining that access. The reasons for denying the access in the first place are safety-related – public and private. The system is working thus far, and despite the added inconvenience for parties to private gun transfers, it is an appropriate balance between freedom and responsibility.

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