In a recent statement, the NRA claimed that:

Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools. While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg's "universal" background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows. The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedies in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson. We need a serious and meaningful solution that addresses crime in cities like Chicago, addresses mental health deficiencies, while at the same time protecting the rights of those of us who are not a danger to anyone.

Are there any data to support or dispute this claim? Would the expanded background checks of the Toomey-Manchin proposal have prevented the incidents NRA mentions or other shooting incidents in the recent past, assuming they were in place at the time?

  • I'll try to expand to an answer later, but they have a valid point. The whole thing was done based on Newtown as excuse, which was committed by guns 100% of which were owned by the shooter's mother for herself, and the mother would have easily passed background checks. So would the guy who shot people in Aurora - he wouldn't have triggered any checks.
    – user4012
    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:33
  • They may have a point, but it's a point not really related to the proposal to expand background checks.
    – user1530
    Apr 12, 2013 at 6:55
  • @DA You say it's not really related, and that is true, but they sure are leveraging the Newtown victims' families to push this effort through, and frequently they mention how this is related to gun control to prevent or reduce this sort of thing from happening again, so I'd say the blanket argument that it's not related is not really accurate. Apr 15, 2013 at 18:43
  • @JeremyHolovacs I'd say it's all certainly relevant to the rhetoric on both sides--not not the actual issue (but what else is new in politics?) ;)
    – user1530
    Apr 15, 2013 at 20:08

5 Answers 5


TL;DR: NRA is correct. None of the 3 shootings used the guns purchased at gun shows (e.g. using loopholes); all used guns that passed NICS checks via gun stores; and none of the 3 has any data to indicate that the buyer would have triggered any of the NICS checks even if we don't rely on "gun store buys means NICS was checks" logic.

http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/general-information/fact-sheet lists the following criteria for failing background checks.

  1. NONE of thee criteria would have been triggered by the mother of Newtown shooter (she was the one who bought and owned the guns), which was the incident used as an excuse to pass tougher gun control laws in 2013.

  2. Neither would they be triggered by Aurora, Colorado shooter (despite the obvious mental issues, he was never officially ruled mentally unfit or committed prior to the shooting. You can make your own judgement about deficiencies of mental health systems after reading his Wiki article). All the guns were purchased legally, from gun shops that already conduct background checks.

  3. It's harder to evaluate Tuscon event. The shooter did have several prior arrests (src) but the criteria don't seem to include arrests, merely being convicted or being a fugitive. Same for his drug use - he was arrested but never convicted. He also likely passed NICS explicitly since his gun was bought at a store and not gun show using "loophole".

Seems that NRA analysis is correct.

The ONLY realistic change that would have prevented any of these shootings (and only 1 in 3 - Tuscon, AZ one) and one that is actually NOT part of this 2013 gun law package, would be restricting the checks to deny people who were arrested even once for possession of drugs even without conviction.

Federal Categories of Persons Prohibited From Receiving

The federally prohibiting criteria are as follows:

  • A person who has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year or any state offense classified by the state as a misdemeanor and is punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than two years.
  • Persons who are fugitives of justice—for example, the subject of an active felony or misdemeanor warrant.
  • An unlawful user and/or an addict of any controlled substance; for example, a person convicted for the use or possession of a controlled substance within the past year; or a person with multiple arrests for the use or possession of a controlled substance within the past five years with the most recent arrest occurring within the past year; or a person found through a drug test to use a controlled substance unlawfully, provided the test was administered within the past year.
  • A person adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle own affairs, including dispositions to criminal charges of found not guilty by reason of insanity or found incompetent to stand trial.
  • A person who, being an alien, is illegally or unlawfully in the United States.
  • A person who, being an alien except as provided in subsection (y) (2), has been admitted to the United States under a non-immigrant visa.
  • A person dishonorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces.
  • A person who has renounced his/her United States citizenship.
  • The subject of a protective order issued after a hearing in which the respondent had notice that restrains them from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such partner. This does not include ex parte orders.
  • A person convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime which includes the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon and the defendant was the spouse, former spouse, parent, guardian of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabiting with or has cohabited in the past with the victim as a spouse, parent, guardian or similar situation to a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim.
  • A person who is under indictment or information for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  • 1
    Won't the background checks proposal change the criteria? The claim is about the criteria that are currently under debate, not the current ones.
    – yannis
    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:50
  • 2
    The NRA statement can be considered valid, but the statement doesn't address the broad question of 'does it help prevent gun violence in general?'. (but maybe that is what @yannisRizos is asking?)
    – user1530
    Apr 12, 2013 at 6:59
  • 4
    -1 For echoing NRA talking points but not actually addressing the question at all - Are background checks effective in preventing gun violence?. Cherry picking three recent incidents doesn't mean that background checks wouldn't prevent any gun violence.
    – JNK
    Apr 12, 2013 at 13:28
  • 1
    I feel like that's my fault @JNK, for not focusing the question. I really need to get a lot better at asking questions ;)
    – yannis
    Apr 12, 2013 at 15:31
  • 2
    @DA. - this seems to be an overall problem on SE (rand into the same subjec vs. body issuels like 3 times in last week across 2 SEs)
    – user4012
    Apr 12, 2013 at 16:01

The title of your question is a bit broader than what the NRA quote speaks to, so I'll address the title.

The gun lobby (and the NRA in particular) have been very careful to mention only these three incidents when talking about background checks. This is because some other very high profile mass shootings, i.e. the VA Tech shooting which was the deadliest school shooting in US history, would very likely have been prevented by universal background checks.

The VA Tech shooter got his guns through loopholes in the background check laws (he would not have passed a check due to mental health issues).

The broader question of "do background checks prevent gun violence" is almost certainly answered "yes".

Since the national background check system has been in place, almost 2 million people have been denied access to guns because they failed a check. If even one of these people was prevented from committing a shooting or other crime (which we can pretty safely assume at least one person out of 1.7 million was) then the porous current system has already prevented crime.

  • VA Tech shooter caused 33 deaths. Out of many millions of guns owned in USA, and thousands and thousands of deaths of all sorts of causes. Infringing the rights of millions of people over actions of one is not the way this country was designed (or should we also register and background check every single Moslem over Fort Hood shooting?)
    – user4012
    Apr 12, 2013 at 15:54
  • @DVK I'm not sure how your comment is relevant to the question or answer. The question was "Do background checks prevent gun violence?" - infringing of rights didn't enter into it. Are you implying that we should allow felons and mentally unstable people to buy guns?
    – JNK
    Apr 12, 2013 at 15:57
  • 3
    You aren't considering the practical downsides of checks. Such as false positives (a person in NY has just had his license revoked because some government idiot made a mistake); or possibly lethal breaches of privacy by gun control advocates (publishing names of gun owners); or having a government have permanent access to people's personal data highly prone to abuse. All of these DO infringe rights, or have strong potential of doing so.
    – user4012
    Apr 12, 2013 at 16:03
  • 1
    @DVK all valid points for discussion on another question or answer. We can't turn every question into a very broad discussion of that topic without making them very hard to read :)
    – JNK
    Apr 12, 2013 at 16:05
  • 1
    @DA. - done. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/1269/…
    – user4012
    Apr 12, 2013 at 16:18

At best a background check would usually only delay a person dedicated to violence.

But it is possible, especially in todays climate, that someone who was rejected by a background check might also receive closer attention from law enforcement by way of follow up visit. In that respect it might be someone comes to the attention of law enforcement and they somehow prevent the violence.

In fairness, it's exceptionally difficult to say what crimes were prevented as it's impossible to know with certainty if a person was going to commit a crime.

Even with an extensive background check systems in place, it is reasonably easy to purchase weapons with either a private transfer which requires no check at all, buy them in a state that has no background check, or to buy weapons illegally, or to simply steal them.

There is hope that the delay allows a person who is acting from emotion the time to think before acting rashly. Unfortunately this works best for those who are acting in a fit of passion. Mass shooting events are not perpetrated by that sort of criminal mind set, but rather by people with the ability to plan their attacks.

Because of these factors it is likely that background checks in place today, had they been in place in the past, would have done nothing useful in terms of preventing the shootings in the past.

The simple answer is: No.

  • Wouldn't the solution to just make it illegal to have weapons to reduce the stock of weapons over time ?
    – BlueTrin
    Mar 6, 2014 at 12:37

Perhaps, but then, that would leave peaceful citizens even less able to defend themselves against criminals who do manage to acquire or build weapons.

You need to take into account that darn near anyone with novice level metal working skills can produce a functional AK-47, and with 3D printing soon anyone who can work an ipad will be able to produce weapons.

Prohibition is a fools errand and only works in a police state.

  • 1
    I fail to see how this has any relevance to the question. Alternate means of acquiring guns has nothing to do with whether background checks would have prevented previous incidents. If your point is "No, because there are ways to get around it", then you need to make that much more explicit, which your other answer does.
    – Bobson
    May 16, 2014 at 16:36
  • 1
    It's simple. If the government said "you can't have a gun" all that means is you have to get one illegally. Background checks don't stop criminals from being criminal. May 16, 2014 at 20:29
  • None of the people the question is asking about would have been classified as criminals, so that's irrelevant. And the question also doesn't ask whether banning all guns would have prevented the incidents, so that part is irrelevant as well. In other words, this still doesn't relate to the question in any way.
    – Bobson
    May 16, 2014 at 21:32

If you don't realize how easy it is to obtain an illegal firearm, you are critically sheltered. The expansion of background checks won't curb gun violence at all. What we need to do it allow law abiding people to carry their firearms. This would curb gun violence but the truth is that there is a bigger agenda behind the restrictions being imposed on the 2nd amendment.

  • In that law abiding people are allowed to carry firearms, yet we still have gun violence, I don't see how your argument is any more valid than the one you're arguing against.
    – user1530
    May 17, 2014 at 22:54
  • In most states there are many hoops to jump through to obtain a CCW. My argument is valid because in states that allow their citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit have the lowest crime rates. In states like California, New York and Michigan, gun laws are very strict, yet crime is very high. You cannot argue with the statistical evidence that proves that when you allow law abiding people to carry guns freely, there is less crime. May 18, 2014 at 17:47
  • 1
    It would help if you could provide some citations that could back it up. Alas, most research on this particular topic is inconclusive washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/… So, yes, we absolutely can argue with 'statistical evidence' as there is very little of it pertaining to this particular issue. (Regardless, it still doesn't directly address the question being asked)
    – user1530
    May 18, 2014 at 18:52
  • 2
    @user3138766 - Facts are facts... but only if you actually cite those facts. Otherwise they're just your opinion.
    – Bobson
    May 19, 2014 at 11:24
  • 2
    @user3138766 I, also have looked for statistics between crime rates and gun restrictions, and I have yet to find anything that shows a strong correlation one way or another. So, Either you have some statistics that we've been unable to find, or you're making things up. Until you give us a source, we're going to assume that it's the latter. May 19, 2014 at 18:15

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