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News from UC Davis Health System

News from UC Davis Health System

NEWS | July 1, 2010

UC Davis physician calls for stronger screening, record-keeping on gun sales

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

In a perspective published online on June 30 in The New England Journal of Medicine, Garen Wintemute, UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program director, urges Congress to pursue making all private-party gun sales subject to the same screening and record-keeping requirements that apply to sales by licensed gun retailers.

Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine in the UC Davis School of Medicine, said the approach would be more effective and have more support than requiring criminal background checks of private-party sales at gun shows.

"Gun owners gave stronger support to this all-inclusive approach than to a gun-show-only proposal in a 2009 poll conducted for the advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns," Wintemute said.

Since such a requirement would be more effective, and either approach would face "tough sledding" on Capitol Hill, moving forward with the one most likely to reduce rates of firearm-related violence is the preferable course.

In 2007, 12,632 people in the United States were murdered with firearms, and an estimated 48,676 were treated in hospitals for gunshot wounds received in assaults. Eighty-five percent of all guns used in crimes have been sold at least once by private parties, the commentary relates.

Wintemute describes two systems of legal retail gun commerce in the United States. In one, sales by federally licensed gun retailers require purchasers to show identification and certify that they do not fall into any categories barred from purchasing firearms, including felons, controlled-substances addicts or domestic-violence offenders. A criminal background check is conducted and the retailer must keep a permanent record of the purchase. In the other, none of those safeguards apply. You can legally buy as many guns as you want from a private party with no identification, background check or record-keeping. The sale can remain anonymous and undocumented, despite the fact that perhaps 40 percent of all gun sales nationwide are made by private parties. Moreover, private parties can sell handguns to persons as young as 18 years of age. Licensed retailers cannot sell handguns to anyone under 21.

"The private-party gun market, sometimes called the informal gun market, has long been recognized as a leading source of guns used in crimes," Wintemute says in the perspective. "Such sales are the principal option when the prospective purchaser is a felon, a domestic-violence offender, or another person prohibited by law from owning a gun."

Gun shows are the "big-box retailers" of gun commerce, where both systems of gun sales exists side-by-side. But they account for only a small percentage of gun sales in the U.S. — between 4 and 9 percent — and only 3 to 8 percent of private-party sales. Six states, including California, already make private-party gun sales subject to the same requirements as sales by licensed retailers. And the screening works, Wintemute said.

"Long-term observational studies in California show that denial, in turn, is associated with a roughly 25 percent decrease in the risk that the would-be purchaser will later commit a crime involving guns or violence," Wintemute said.

While such a requirement might create inconvenience, there are notable precedents where we are willing to make that accommodation.

"Eighty-three percent of self-reported gun owners and 87 percent of the general population endorsed regulation for all private-party gun sales in the 2008 poll that was conducted for Mayors Against Illegal Guns," he said.

And, while it might be inconvenient, he notes that we are willing to make such accommodations in other circumstances.

"We might know that (airport) security screening is an unnecessary intrusion as applied to us, but we have no such certainty that it is unnecessary as applied to those who are standing in line with us, and few people would endorse a proposal to leave the decision about whether to be screened to the individual passenger."

Co-authors on the article include Anthony Braga of Rutgers University and David Kennedy of the City University of New York.