In the current gun control debate, all of the voiced arguments are about the positive sides of background checks for gun purchases (e.g. that a check could possibly keep the gun from a person too mentally unstable or with criminal tendencies who are more likely than average to use it for indiscriminate murder of innocent victims).

But pretty much ANY action or system has intended or unintended downsides as well.

Are there downsides to background checks for gun purchases?

I would strongly prefer downsides that come with specific practical examples, or if none exist, a plausible scenario of how a similar scenario happened (in other words, "the government can confiscate ALL guns" isn't a plausible scenario as no such thing ever happened. "A government worker can look at confidential data and leak it" is a plausible scenario, since it HAS happened in the past even if not related to gun checks specifically).

The question is somewhat USA-centric, but examples from non-US locales are acceptable.

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    I am confused what practicality of a policy has to do with politics :p Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 18:23

3 Answers 3


In a poorly designed background check system, you would have three problems:

  1. Individuals could be easily confused, and legitimate buyers could be denied.

    The "No-Fly lists" maintained by the TSA famously excluded Ted Kennedy once, and an ACLU lawyer on another occasion. Especially in a system that is supposed to tie together mental health and legal records, the possibility of unnecessarily stopping a valid purchase has decent potential.

  2. Missing or bad data can lead to a false sense of security

    We've all been on projects where join conditions weren't behaving as expected - and it was usually an ETL problem that hadn't been anticipated. If records have data corruption issues, it would be very easy for an algorithm to overlook a record that would otherwise bar ownership.

    Prison records, for example, are notoriously bad - and prisoners are regularly kept too long or released early due to simple transcription errors. Contuences, early releases, and additional time notices - handwritten and entered into systems - sometimes just get lost, and prisoners are released early (one recently killed a DA in Colorado) or remain in prison too long.

    In the case where the net result would be to approve a sale of firearms to those who shouldn't have them, the public would be misled into believing they are much safer than they actually are.

  3. All of this only applies to new weapons

    Guns are durable goods. Once purchased, they stay around for a long time. As this Freakonomics podcast pointed out there are over 300 million firearms already in circulation in the United States - nearly one for every person in the country. With only 10 million purchases in a given year, the truth is that restricting purchases simply won't have any effect for a long time to come. As a result, the class of citizens potentially being denied will skew heavily towards classes that haven't been here for a while, potentially making those classes less secure than their otherwise gun-toting brethren.


This is more of a "plausible scenario", but I think an important (unintended) downside may very well be singling out an already vulnerable community, people with mental health issues.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has summarised the SAFE Act as:

The SAFE Act stops criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from buying a gun by requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, increases penalties for people who use illegal guns, mandates life in prison without parole for anyone who murders a first responder, and imposes the toughest assault weapons ban in the country. For hunters, sportsmen, and law abiding gun owners, this new law preserves and protects your right to buy, sell, keep or use your guns.

Specifically for the mentally ill, the SAFE Act requires mental health professionals to report their patients to a local director:

What does the new MHL 9.46 require be reported?

MHL 9.46 requires mental health professionals to report to their local director of community services (“DCS”) or his/her designees when, in their reasonable professional judgment, one of their patients is “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.”

Who is required to report under MHL 9.46?

The reporting requirement extends to “mental health professionals,” defined in the law as four professions – physicians (including psychiatrists), psychologists, registered nurses, or licensed clinical social workers.

Who is potentially a subject of an MHL 9.46 report?

All persons receiving mental health treatment services from any of the four types of mental health professionals identified in the law, regardless of the setting in which they work, may be subjects of 9.46 reports.

While it's extremely hard to argue against the need to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns, the direct association of mental illness with gun violence is a dangerous one, and one that doesn't sit well with mental health professionals and academics:

"It has set back stigma a trillion years," says Sharon McCarthy, programme director for the Westchester branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"In developing this law, you brought in the mentally ill people," says Ms McCarthy, whose daughter is bipolar. "You didn't bring in the gangs. You pinpointed that group."


Like others in the field of mental health, Prof Applebaum1 fears that patients, who already do their utmost to maintain their anonymity, will recoil at the new regulations.

"Lots of people, because of the stigma associated with mental illness, don't want anybody to know that they're in treatment," he says.

"They don't use their insurance coverage. They pay out of pocket, so their employer and their insurer won't know. They may not even tell their spouse."

The thought that their doctor might now report them to a local official, he says, could be disastrous.

Source: Will gun laws hurt the mentally ill? - BBC

1 Professor Paul Applebaum is the director of law, ethics and psychiatry at Columbia University.

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    Perhaps you could be more clear by asking how the background checks will succeed in preventing the mentally ill from obtaining guns. Your quotes seem to suggest that doctors would have to report their patients to some list that could be queried for the denial of a gun purchase. That's an excellent point as it seems there isn't a good way to have a list without invading privacy.
    – TTT
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 0:51
  • @TTT Updated the answer with information on the requirement for doctors to report their patients.
    – yannis
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 1:02
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    Great. Thanks for the link. Very informative. I believe an unintended side effect of that law is that people (especially gun owners) that worry they may have a mental illness, may now elect to not seek medical attention for fear of being reported. Perhaps the law may do more good than harm, but I think it is correct to conclude that some people will likely be harmed by this.
    – TTT
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 5:27
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    Great, so now people who could be legitimately helped by seeking mental health counseling sooner, rather than when its too late, will refuse to go because they'll be worried about being forever labelled mentally ill. Also, we know the government will protect those records really well. Right up until some newspaper wants to publish that list of names and files a freedom of information suit. This bill could very well increase the number of mentally ill shootings because fewer people will have been helped.
    – Dunk
    Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 21:50

I think it's a matter of privacy and protecting your right to it. A background check can be quite invasive, and citizens should not have to subject themselves to such scrutiny to legally purchase and/ or use a firearm as promised by the Constitution.

Background checks are, in many cases, highly subjective, as well. The standards for "who is mentally fit enough to own a firearm" will not be easily defined in law, so it will come down to some individual deciding whether or not you have a right to defend yourself, and there is little opportunity to argue the case.

A third reason, is that there is little to suggest this will have an effect on gun violence at all, so what this amounts to is essentially more hassle for the law-abiding, responsible gun-owners for nothing but an imaginary feel-good for some fringe elements of this debate.

Lastly, there is the emotional response, where the average citizen shouldn't have to jump through hoops because somebody else misbehaved. This has no metric behind it, but a pretty strong resentment against a "mass punishment" mentality.

  • Can you elaborate on the intrusiveness part? I hear a lot about "it's a hassle" but as far as I can tell, at least in the US, it's a whole lot easier to buy a gun than a used car.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 20:24
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    Oh, as for your last point, I agree that there's an emotional response issue, but there's certainly plenty of precedent. That's not unique to gun regulation, but rather par-for-the-course when it comes to laws in general.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 20:26
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    @DA perhaps we disagree on what a practical downside is. Setting a precedent of any kind enables and encourages future behavior based on the same theme; that is the way our legal system works, officially. The effect is not immediate, but it is definitely practical with very real consequences. The fact that they cannot be quantified at this moment does not mean they cannot be quantified. Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 12:30
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    Your first, third, and fourth points are irrelevant to this discussion. They are arguments against the need for background checks, not "practical downsides".
    – JNK
    Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 18:10
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    @Dunk How is "resentment" a practical downside? Constitutionality again is not a practical issue - it's a legal one. "More hassle" isn't specific at all, and is barely practical. Practicality addresses issues of actual implementation of background checks, which are nicely demonstrated in the other answers as I have mentioned.
    – JNK
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 11:56

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