The centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s latest proposals to limit gun violence is better oversight of gun sellers. This is necessary and overdue, but the people on the other side of the counter also deserve more attention.
Gun buyers from federally licensed dealers must undergo background checks, which are designed to screen out felons, fugitives and anyone who has been committed to a mental institution. Since 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has blocked more than 2.4 million guns from being sold to such people. On Tuesday, Obama announced a broader definition of who, exactly, is “in the business” of selling firearms — and thus required to conduct criminal background checks.
The theory behind background checks is straightforward: Some people with guns pose significantly higher risks — to society and themselves — than others. But more research is needed to know how meaningful such prohibitions are, and what other categories of people might pose equally unacceptable risks.
Evidence is growing. According to the American Psychological Association, the best predictor of future gun violence is “a history of violent behavior.” A domestic abuser or stalker with no convictions, for example, may be a far more dangerous gun risk than a felonious swindler.
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Research indicates that people with a history of violent misdemeanors are more likely to engage in violent behavior after purchasing a gun. Another risk factor is having multiple convictions related to alcohol or illegal drugs.
Additional research into gun violence can lead to strategies beyond the typical reach of law enforcement.