Universal background checks — let’s watch them work

April 9, 2019 GMT

Better late than never, we suppose. Attorney General Hector Balderas, curiously silent during the legislative session, has written to sheriffs and police chiefs around the state that law enforcement agencies must enforce a new law expanding background checks to most private gun sales.

Yet, the attorney general said little when sheriffs from around the state showed up to complain that new gun regulations being considered in the Legislature would do little to stop gun violence. Some 26 county commissions in New Mexico approved “Sanctuary County” ordinances in supposed defense of the Second Amendment, which protects the rights of citizens to bear arms. However, all rights have some limitations, and checking on the suitability of a person to own a gun is no infringement on the Second Amendment.


A word from the state’s top law enforcement official reminding sheriffs and chiefs that they don’t get to pick and choose their laws would have been useful during the contentious process.

Still, we are glad Balderas has weighed in strongly on the side of enforcement of laws duly passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. The new law, not yet in effect, will require a background check before almost all gun sales, including a private exchange between two people. Exceptions are allowed for close family members and law enforcement officers.

In his letter, Balderas warned law enforcement officials that if they refuse to enforce the law, they face liability if someone who should not have a gun obtains one and then causes harm. That’s true. What is also true is that this is a sensible law even if it will not keep all guns from all bad guys, the seemingly impossible standard some gun rights activists promote.

Even if they’re not perfect, background checks work — whether in a store, at a gun show or in a sale between neighbors. Yes, a background check does add red tape. But buying a gun is not like purchasing a new bookshelf for the den. It is important to keep weapons out of the hands of people seeking to do harm.

For opponents of such laws, we point to a brand-new study out April 5, written about by Richard Florida and Nicole Javorsky at CityLab. Here’s the scoop: “A new study by researchers … finds conclusive evidence that states with stricter gun-control laws have lower rates of both murders and suicides.”

Importantly, three laws do the most to reduce the harm from guns — and one of those is universal background checks. The other two are bans on violent offenders purchasing guns and “may-issue” laws that allow police to deny certain applicants concealed carry permits. Finally, research is showing us which laws actually work to reduce harm. Universal background checks, in fact, were associated with a nearly 15 percent drop in the homicide rate.


From the story: “States with all three of the most effective measures — universal background checks, bans on violent offenders, and “may-issue” laws (which give police discretion in issuing concealed-carry permits) — had homicide rates that were 36 percent lower.” The study tracked the effects of 10 guns laws on gun deaths between 1991 and 2016, controlling for various factors. Its findings are a useful tool in deciding what public policies can be enacted to reduce harm without infringing upon law-abiding citizens.

In New Mexico, we now have the opportunity to see whether universal background checks — while not guaranteed to stop every bad person from obtaining a gun — will keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them. We want decreases in gun violence. For that to happen, our sheriffs, police chiefs, officers and yes — the attorney general, must commit to ensuring compliance with universal background checks.