A Test for Murdering Intent

Earlier this month, on the 4th of January, the Obama administration announced it would be exercising its executive powers on congress to pass through a series of laws hoping to counter the massive gun violence afflicting the States. (1)
The topic of gun violence was then again brought to the forefront of our collective minds this Friday with the La Loche shooting in Saskatchewan which claimed 4 lives and left 2 in a critical state, earning itself the macabre title of the worst shooting to happen in Canada since 1992.(2)

In the following days, journalists and the Canadian public will begin asking the questions of why it happened, and how can similar incidents be prevented? Of course, this idea of prevention could probably be solved by making it quasi-impossible to own a gun. Harvard’s Injury Control Center reviewed the literature on the topic and concluded that :

gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries (3)

Putting this into numbers, Japan, which has severely regulated gun control laws saw 11 gun related deaths in 2008 compared to 12 thousand in the United States that same year (4). Even taking into account population ratio, that placed the US at 2.96 homicides (per 100000 pop) as compared to Japan’s 0.01 (5).

But not banning the weapons doesn’t mean indiscriminately handing them out either. Indeed, the gist of the new legislation that came out of the white house early this month was that the net for background checks would be widened so that that guns don’t reach the hands of the wrong people. So what is this net comprised of? Essentially, we are asking what does the government of the United States and Canada consider to be a predictor for murdering intent.

In this post, I will focus on the States, where most arms purchaser must go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and can be denied fire arms eligibility if they fall under the following points(6):

-Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
-Is a fugitive from justice
-Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance
-Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution
-Is an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States or who has been admitted to the United States under a non-immigrant visa
-Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
-Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship
-Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner
-Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence
-Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year

But how successful were these new measures in curbing gun crime? The Brady Campaign reports that since 1994 (when the checks became mandatory), 2.1 million gun purchases were denied (7). It is likely we will never know how many of those potential purchases might have ended in crime. Yet if you look at the Bureau of Justice’s 2004 report on the source of firearms possessed by state prison inmates at time of offense, 59.9% of the cases weren’t obtained from what would be considered a “Street or Illegal source”(8). And as far as I my understanding goes, in at least 21% of the cases (those in retail stores, pawn shops, and purchased or traded from family or friends), the seller was obliged to contact the FBI for the standard NICS background check.

Since this is supposed to be a blog and not an end degree thesis, I can’t dedicate myself to write a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of the background check, however I will highlight important points to keep a lookout for when judging it.

At the top of that list is how valid is this survey, the 21% statistic mentioned earlier may want us to look deeper into the Type II errors of these tests since 21% of all people who clear the background check is very likely a large number.

Nevertheless, assuming that such tests yield crime stopping results, we reach a new problem, that of distribution. To me it is not only important that a test of the sort be administered, but that it has complete coverage of gun buyers. Up until recently, gun shows, online purchases and private seller were relieved from any checks (9). The good news is that progress is being made to this end in the United States with NICS background checks filling in these last loopholes.

Finally, something that I couldn’t touch on because of the lack of available information is the process in which the items in the background check were formulated. My instinct is to say that it was made by legislators who may or may not have experience in test making. Whether all the items on the test were chosen because of a clear correlation with gun violence, or whether it was a compilation of “common sensical” factors behind gun violence is a question I can’t answer. But given that the test hasn’t been updated since it became mandatory in 1994 (22 years!), I get the impression that a huge opportunity of learning for the data and revising the items to better predict gun violence is long overdue.

8- Planty, M., Truman, J. L., & United States. (2013). Firearm violence, 1993–2011.