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Member since: Sat Nov 29, 2008, 02:55 PM
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Some thoughts on universal background checks.

Since guns have become a partisan fetish object the legislation is understood to be regulating that object. Actually, the proposed legislation regulates relationships between people.

When you buy a gun from an FFL, it is a commercial relationship between a certain type of buyer and seller. For the seller to be considered legitimate he or she has to be licensed as and FFL with all the rights and responsibilities thereto. The FFL has to keep a "bound book" of every transaction and firearm bought and sold and make his or her inventory and records available to the government for inspection. There are severe penalties for non compliance. For someone to be a "gun buyer" he or she has to verify that they are an upstanding citizen by filling out a 4473 and passing a background check, also with severe penalties for non compliance. If these conditions are not met, the sale cannot be completed and the relationship between buyer and seller will not exist. That's how the regulation of that kind of relationship is done.

Heretofore, transfer of firearms between friends, family, associates or acquaintances were exactly that. It's the same gun, but the relationships between the people are different. Universal background checks will require the redefinition of the relationships between people surrounding the transfer of the gun. That's why exceptions are made for family in the current proposed legislation.

A gun is considered a much more personal object than say, a car or a house. A gun, generally understood to be a handgun, is small enough to carried in one's clothing so is understood in the same context as a wallet or a ring and is considered an extension of one's body as opposed to other personal property like a lawn mower. Also, a gun is understood to be important for the protection of one's person, so it's importance as a safety device is much greater than almost any other thing someone may own. The circumstances under which a gun is designed to be used surround issues of life and death and loom very large in the minds of those who own or transfer them to others.

The problem with a background check requirement for private sales is that it will require us to redefine our relationships with others to transfer the gun. While two people may have any number of uncounted types of human relationships between them from godparent to causal acquaintance, at the point of transfer the relationship has to become one between an FFL and a qualified buyer. Any background check system has to employ chain of custody documentation, penalties for non compliance and a means of prosecuting violators or it will be useless. That system is already in place for FFL's and the law as proposed will use the same verification infrastructure for private sales as for commercial sales. Hence the controversy surrounding "keeping records" and "gun registry" etc.

So the problem with the implementation of universal background checks is that no matter what relationship two people may have, when the firearm is transferred the relationship of "sanctioned buyer and seller" becomes paramount. While that relationship can begin and end between two anonymous individuals in a store, it will not supplant whatever relationship two people may have prior to the transfer. Thus, the regulation requirement becomes intrusive into the private lives of individuals.

Such an intrusion is not, in itself, a bad thing if it results in an improvement in the lives of all. The sociocultural cost benefit analysis of that benefit is done through the political process. Resistance to further firearms regulation from the political right will be near universal, and the intrusion into the private lives of citizens by "big government" will make that resistance particularly intense. Support from the political left will not match the resistance from the right because firearms ownership is not divided along partisan lines and the implications of the legislation will be a factor in liberal gun owning support of the law. Support from the political center will be particularly soft depending on how people feel about the implications of the legislation.

The issue is a difficult one for the political left in light of other important signature policy initiatives we champion. Liberal defense of personal relationships have been a lynchpin of any number of policy initiatives from marriage equality to reproductive rights. Support of regulating relationships between people surrounding the transfer of firearms opens the left to accusations of ideological hypocrisy. Such accusations, whether true or not, will have an impact on the support for the overall Democratic agenda. The question to ask is will universal background checks result in sufficient societal improvement to refute accusations of ideological hypocrisy and deliver a perceptible improvement in people's lives to merit the intrusion into their interpersonal relationships?

Since only a tiny fraction of the firearms in existence are used improperly a universal background check requirement will have a negligible impact on the further reduction of their improper use. The negative impact on the private lives of people who otherwise would do no harm far outweighs whatever benefit it might deliver in the reduction of crime with firearms. Furthermore, the political liabilities of such a requirement may well result in much greater damage because of the damage to much more important and effective aspects of the Democratic agenda that will be impeded because of support for this law.
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