With Gun Violence At An All-Time High, Background Checks Are Becoming More Prevalent
As the people of Odessa, Texas mourn the lives that were lost at the hands of an enraged gunman last Saturday, America wrestles with its constitutional stance on gun ownership.
While many Americans remain loyal to the Second Amendment and their constitutional right to bear arms, recent mass shootings are making others doubt the efficacy of the government’s stance on gun control.
Leaving seven dead and another 25 injured, the Odessa shooting was the 38th mass shooting in the US this year. Although the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is designed to protect people from harm, it seems it’s not going far enough nor deep enough to do this effectively.
With 53 Americans killed in shooting incidents in August alone, its little wonder pressure is building on Trump and his advisors to introduce more expansive and stringent background checks. Trump is reluctant, however, and doubtful that such a move would have much impact on the problem. According to the President, “Over the last five, six, or seven years, no matter how strong you need the background checks, it wouldn’t have stopped any of it”.
While many Americans remain loyal to the Second Amendment and their constitutional right to bear arms, recent mass shootings are making others doubt the efficacy of the government’s stance on gun control. In the aftermath of the Odessa mass shooting, which comes on the heels of the El Paso massacre, many are calling for the government to tighten laws on gun control and expand the background checks required to purchase firearms.
How Background Checks For FirearmsWork Today
Currently, only those purchasing firearms from a licensed gun dealer are subjected to an FBI background check. This process requires the buyer to complete an ATF form 4473, which is submitted to the FBI for checking. The questions on the form include:
- Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
- Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence?
- Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any other depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?
- Have you ever been committed to a mental institution?
Once the buyer completes the form, the seller submits this information to the FBI either over the internet or by telephone. The agency checks the information given against its databases, and then delivers its verdict. Since the enactment of the Brady Act in 1993, this system has processed over 280 million applications and denied over 1.5 million people the right to purchase a gun. But is it enough, or are the loopholes leading to lunacy?
Loopholes in the NICS Background check
Several loopholes compromise the FBI’s background check system, even though, in itself, it seems effective. The first, and possibly the most dangerous, is that not all those buying guns have to go through this system. In fact, anyone can purchase a firearm from an unlicensed seller without having to pass a background check. This includes private sellers, those advertising guns online, and even those selling at gun shows.
According to one report, this loophole means that “an estimated 22% of US gun owners acquired their most recent firearm without a background check.” That equates to millions of people and millions of firearms. If that isn’t scary enough, another ambiguity in the FBI background check process means that, should a background check not be finalized within three working days, the dealer may proceed with the sale.
This default proceed is, according to the National Rifle Association (NFA), “a safety valve that ensures gun purchases in the US are not arbitrarily denied their Second Amendment Rights”. Unfortunately, the effort to protect some has harmed others and, in 2017, nearly 5,000 prohibited purchasers bought guns as a result of this default proceed regulation, often referred to as the Charleston loophole.
On the other side of the coin, without this legislation, “the FBI has no incentive to complete checks in a timely manner” and doing so has, in the past, left others with no means to defend themselves. Although the Charleston loophole could allegedly have prevented the death of Carole Bowne in 2015, many believe closing it could save more lives than it endangers.
Carol Bowne was in fear for her life, and as a restraining order hadn’t been sufficient to keep her violent ex-boyfriend from harassing her, she applied for a firearm license. Unfortunately for Carol, New Jersey has stricter laws on gun licenses than many other states, and 42 days after her application was submitted, Bowne was still unarmed and unable to defend herself against a fatal attack. According to one attorney, “If New Jersey truly cared about someone like Carol, it would reform the law to allow a law-abiding citizen to carry a weapon”.
Those in favor of closing the Charleston loophole point out, in the same year as Bowne’s tragic death, that this same regulation was responsible for enabling Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he then used to slaughter nine people at the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina. In instances like these, the FBI may need more than three days to investigate potentially disqualifying records, but due to the loophole, this isn’t allowed, and as the background check on Roof was incomplete, the sale went ahead.
Expanding Background Checks to Curb Gun Crime
Proposed amendments to the background check procedure for firearm licenses include a recommendation to increase the three-day deadline to 10 days to allow the FBI more time to fully investigate the buyer. After the 10 days are up, the buyer could request an expedited review to encourage the FBI to reach a decision. This would significantly reduce the number of guns issued as a result of the default proceed provision while ensuring applications made by law-abiding citizens processed timeously.
Some changes are already in effect after Congress passed a bill that will extend gun permit background checks, applying them to online buyers and gun shows as well as registered dealers while further improvements include giving gun dealers the means to verify identification. Although all buyers must present proof of identity when purchasing a firearm, currently, the law doesn’t give dealers a mechanism for ensuring the validity of these documents. As a result, it’s been suggested that all firearm dealers should have access to motor vehicle databases which would enable them to verify proof of identity. Research indicates that over 80% of Americans are in favor of this recommendation, although President Trump’s position remains unclear.
At times, Trump has seemed positive about increasing background checks and ‘red flag’ laws alike, saying, “I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before.” At other times, he’s appeared less enthusiastic and a couple of weeks ago defended the current gun legislation, saying, “We have very, very strong background checks right now, but we have sort of missing areas and areas that don’t complete the whole circle… I have to tell you that it’s a mental problem”.
Other Proposed Gun Control Measures
Ambiguous though that is, the point Trump was trying to get across was that he believes building more institutions to care for the mentally ill would have a significant impact on gun crime. “We have to start building institutions again because, you know, if you look at the ’60s and ’70s, so many of these institutions were closed, and the people were just allowed to go onto the streets,” the President announced last month.
While the future of such plans remains ambiguous, these come in addition to and not as an alternative to better background check procedures and tighter legislation regarding gun permits. In fact, Trump went on to say, “I support strong, meaningful background checks where people that should not have guns, people that are insane, people that are mentally ill, people that are bad, bad people, like this guy in Philadelphia who has been arrested numerous times — he’s a bad guy — where people like that would not have guns”.
Other legislation includes the introduction of red flag laws that would empower state courts to temporarily confiscate a firearm from anyone deemed to be a danger to themselves or to others. Since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, 12 states have implemented such legislation, adding themselves to the list of five that already had them in place.
Like background check policies, red flag legislation varies from state to state and gun control proponents want to see both applied at federal level to increase safety on a national level.
These aren’t the only recommendations being bandied around, however, and last month Mike DeWine, Ohio Governor, announced a list of legislative reforms designed to address gun violence, a comprehensive list of which you can view here.
Conclusion To Background Checks for Firearms
Given the prevalence of crime of all descriptions, it’s hardly surprising that the citizens of America are both nervous and cynical. While employers turn to Credit Reporting Agencies to screen potential employees in an effort to maintain safety in the workplace, many individuals use online background check services to boost their own security.
While services like TruthFinder and BeenVerified won’t be able to reveal a person’s history of mental illness, for example, they may well be able to give you enough background information to ascertain a person’s criminal history and warn you against potentially dangerous individuals.
As Trump battles to find an equilibrium between his support for the Second Amendment and his desire to improve public safety, the American public strongly supports both the idea of expanding background checks and making them universal. Trump is less convinced and recently said, “Background checks — I will say that for the most part, sadly, if you look at the last four or five, going back even five or six or seven years — for the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it”.
Whatever the outcome of these discussions, the people of America will be optimistically hoping for the government to make positive moves to control gun crime and reduce the mass shootings that are becoming frighteningly commonplace.