Ever since gun owners staved off the federal anti-gun onslaught in the first half of 2013, gun control advocates have been scurrying to reshape their message and find other vulnerable targets for their efforts. One of the noteworthy changes to come from this recalibration has been that for the moment, most gun control groups have shifted their focus from banning certain types of firearms to pushing for “universal background checks” for all firearm transfers. Indeed, after failing numerous times to renew the unsuccessful Clinton-era “Assault Weapons Ban” gun control advocates have decided to transition to expanding background checks, an area where they have had moderate success in pushing legislation.
One of the prerequisites for mandatory background checks is the availability of federally licensed dealers (FFLs) to handle the transfers. As of publication, there are approximately 55,000 FFL 01 (dealer’s license) holders in total throughout all 50 states. While this may sound like a huge number of dealers, those who are willing to perform all kinds of transfers make up a much smaller fraction of this overall count. For reference, there were over 21 million NICS background checks performed as part of firearm transfers last year. This means that under the current system, the average dealer is performing around 380 checks per year. FFLs are also expected to maintain the paperwork (Form 4473) from each transaction for 20 years. While private face-to-face transactions make up a very small minority of firearm transfers, mandating background checks for these would only increase the workload for FFLs.
It is here that we find the real problem. Perhaps ironically, gun control advocates have long pushed to reduce the number of FFL holders through more onerous zoning and paperwork requirements. When President Clinton took office in 1993, there were 245,000 Type 01 FFLs in the United States. Dubbed “kitchen table dealers” and attacked, many legitimate dealers that specialized in legal transfers were forced to close doors as the ATF began to enforce stringent zoning requirements and revoked licenses for minor paperwork inconsistencies. The prevailing rhetoric from the time was that these small scale dealers were selling firearms to gangs and criminals and that the ATF would be overextended to treat these issues on a case-by-case basis. Twenty years later, anti-gun policy has reduced the number of FFL holders by nearly 80%.
When the witch-hunt against household FFLs began in 1993, the NICS background check system had yet to be implemented. While the administration accused “kitchen table dealers” of improperly transferring firearms to prohibited persons, the ATF did not give these FFLs the tools to make this determination until the advent of the NICS system in 1998. Now that the instant-check system has been live for over 15 years, there is no reason to believe that licensed dealers would circumvent it in order to deal with unsavory types.
The commercial zoning requirements for FFLs are laughable in today’s digital marketplace. There are thousands of Americans who operate home-based businesses and small-time shops through online marketplaces such as EBay or Etsy. None of these sellers are expected to obtain proper zoning at their home address prior to using the aforementioned websites. Why should FFLs who wish to maintain a simple web presence be subjected to different requirements? Similarly, prospective FFLs who list gun shows as their primary place of business can expect to be denied a license by the ATF. If background checks for every sale are truly all that anti-gun groups want, they have to make it easier for good people to get the licenses necessary to perform the checks. It simply is not reasonable to push for more dealer involvement in transfers while also working to make it as difficult as possible for people to obtain and maintain the FFL.
There are of course some simple solutions to this problem. The first and most obvious would be for gun control groups to abandon this unreasonable and unrealistic policy. Efforts to expand background checks in various states have shown that enforcement is nearly impossible and reductions in crime are mostly theoretical. Another approach would be to relax zoning requirements for FFLs. Unless the FFL plans on maintaining a brick and mortar presence; there really is no practical reason to enforce zoning on them. Treat applicable FFLs like other home or web-based small businesses to ensure that there are plenty of dealers who are willing to actually carry out the transfer and let them carry out transfers wherever they would like. Lastly, now that the NICS system is online there is no reason that it could not be opened to the public. Allowing private sellers to carry out NICS checks would streamline the process and participation rates would likely be higher than most skeptics would believe.
If “universal background checks” are truly anything other than harassment of law-abiding gun owners, advocates of the laws are going to have to make concessions elsewhere. Requiring all gun transfers be done at an FFL while simultaneously making it as difficult as possible to obtain the licensing simply is not workable.
ATF Facts and Figures, FFL Licenses: https://www.atf.gov/sites/default/files/assets/FOIA/FFLs/2013/FFL-By-State/ffl-type-by-state-10102014.pdf
Violence Policy Center (efforts to reduce FFLs): http://www.vpc.org/studies/tupseven.htm
Washington Times (2013 NICS figures): http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/6/gun-sales-2013-break-all-records-due-obamas-gun-co/?page=all