Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mrs. Grundy in the gun safe

Sebastian and I agree on a bunch of things, but one place I’m a good deal more hard-line on is the idea of background checks for private sales. He appears to believe that it is possible to have private background checks for private sale that are both effective and not abusable. I don’t.

Oh, his rationale is sound enough – back in the day everyone knew their neighbors in a way that just isn’t probable today; at least everyplace outside of a large city. It is seductive, the thought that we can enforce via social contract what would be impossible to enforce via the law. If we could disseminate more information about people, and allow others to make decisions based on that information, it’d be great, right?

Not so fast. There’s a number of problems with showing a “maybe” on a publically-accessible database check. The first that jumped to a lot of commenters’ minds over at Sebastian’s was that you get a fact with no context. At some point, this person was arrested for something bad; and necessarily this “fact” will be divorced from context. If it’s not, there’s an information leakage.

Which brings me to my next point, that because there is abusable information leakage going on, and exposing arrest records that were not followed by conviction increases the potential for abuse, this is inappropriate for public access. There’s no way to limit exposure of this information only to people actually selling guns. As he said, “All you need is a name, date of birth, and zip code, and you can run the same check a dealer does on anyone. Since we’re doing this, there’s little reason to restrict access based on state of residence at the federal level.” None of that’s particularly private information.

And finally, what have you proved? That someone exists out there, with that name, DOB, and zip, with a particular history of arrests and convictions. That’s … not really useful. You didn’t get anything to positively match that record with the person standing in front of you. And, are you an expert in spotting a fake ID? Is the guy down the aisle at the gun show? If you do start gathering enough information to positively identify the person in front of you, you’ve gathered enough information to impersonate him (“steal” his identity). Neither side of the transaction can be trusted with that information – I don’t need to have Borepatch’s training in paranoia by the finest minds in the Free World to see that. Heck, it’s not even safe from a personal security point of view to give out enough information to a random stranger to do a useful background check.

Here’s why: I have put on my black hat and taken my bag o’guns to the Fun Show, where I have previously acquired a table to sell at, along with my smartphone and the BackgroundCheck App. I lay out my wares, and commence selling them. Unbeknownst to my purchasers, I have modified the app to retain data (I have phsyical possession plus unlimited time, this is not impossible – if nothing else, I can put in a “key”logger, and leave the app itself intact, which defeats any security on the app itself). At the end of the day I have a list of personal identity information for people who are wealthy enough to buy a firearm; plus the addresses of people who own at least 1 firearm. This is marketable information, even if I don’t use it myself to help myself to their credit or their possession. Plus, with any luck, I’ve made a bit of a profit off the guns themselves – always a bonus.

And we haven’t made straw purchasing any harder – it happens today from Federal Firearms Licensees, what makes you think that people who aren’t dependent on dotting every T and crossing every I will make more effort.


  1. He appears to believe that it is possible to have private background checks for private sale that are both effective and not abusable. I don’t.

    I dunno. The background check system is abusable for two main reasons: because it locks the industry into a brick-and-mortar only model that inflates prices and suppresses demand, and because the current system asks both for the purchaser's identity (which is obviously necessary) and the identity of the gun, which is both unnecessary and makes it trivially easy to illegally compile a gun registration.

    If the current background check system--which deals only in convictions--was opened to all citizens, and the feds simply stopped asking for anything but the prospective purchaser's identity, where's the abuse? The current system already requires us to give personal information to dealers' employees, and many states require private sellers to check ID to verify that the purchaser is local.

    Now, "effective" is another matter. We all know background checks accomplish nothing but undermining support for further gun control. I don't think any honest discussion intended to find "middle ground" on background checks could ever possibly take effectiveness seriously as one of its criteria.

  2. FFL background checks are not "private" in this sense - they are being performed by licensed agents of the government; and I would hope violations of security of the results are prosecuted. I don't worry (much) about FFL's doing NICS checks, their activities are auditable.

    It's J Random Stranger with access to the NICS+ database I worry about; where neither side's activities are auditable

  3. Again, though, doesn't the current NICS return results based primarily on factors that are already a matter of public record?

    I don't think Sebastian's suggestion that a system give back an arrest history makes much sense. But if anybody could type my name into a computer and get back a result of either "clean" or "there's something somewhere in this person's public records that makes him a prohibited person"... Well, that's the world we already live in, isn't it?

  4. Yeah - but we're not encouraged to make decision on that basis, either


Please keep it civil