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House firearms background check proposals won't stop gun
violence, but they'll help
JameJames Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 4:00 a.m. ET March 13,
2019 | Updated 11:34 a.m. ET March 13, 2019
Despite the limitations
inherent in any screening strategy, we should at least make it more
difficult for prohibited individuals to acquire a firearm.
be terminated from his job at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois,
45-year-old Gary Martin attended the Feb. 15 meeting concerning his
employment status with a handgun hidden inside his work clothes. Apparently,
he would be the one to do the firing. By the time the police arrived to
engage Martin in a shootout to his death, Martin had killed five co-workers
and wounded six other victims, including five responding police officers.
As it happens, Illinois has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation,
requiring a background check for issuing gun permits and any subsequent
firearms purchases, be it from a licensed dealer or a private seller.
Unfortunately, the follow-through isn't always up to the same high standard.
Martin had been cleared in screenings for both his Firearm Owner's
Identification (FOID) card and then his purchase of a handgun, despite
multiple arrests including one for domestic battery. However, when he later
applied for the more restrictive concealed carry permit, a search of federal
criminal history data uncovered a prior felony conviction from Mississippi
that would negate his right to own a gun.
After discovering the
disqualifying offense, the Illinois State Police did nothing more than send
Martin a letter ordering him to turn over his weapon. Like many others do in
this situation, Martin ignored the directive. And the rest is tragedy.
With this catastrophic failure as a backdrop, the new Democratic
majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a pair of bills
designed to close gaping loopholes in the federal system of background
checks for firearms purchasing.
Launched in 1998, the National
Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has blocked more than 1.5
million applications to acquire firearms from federally licensed firearms
As many as one in five gun purchases, however, are made
without a background check. Except for transfers between close family
members, H.R. 8 would extend the requirements for background screening to
all firearms purchases - including private transactions at gun shows and
Beef up the background checks we have
controversial companion bill, H.R. 1112, would lengthen the time period for
accomplishing background checks, when necessary. This would bar individuals
from purchasing a firearm just because of a processing delay, such as that
which enabled Dylann Roof, the church shooter in Charleston, South Carolina,
to pass a background check despite a disqualifying arrest for use of a
In whatever form this legislation becomes law,
if it survives at all, expanding the requirements for background checks
would be an important advance. Keeping dangerous weapons away from dangerous
individuals is an objective that virtually all Americans embrace.
Unfortunately, the task is easier articulated than accomplished.
dangerous people are able to purchase a firearm legally because they do not
have a criminal record, a history of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric
facility or any of the other disqualifiers. Included among them are the
gunmen responsible for the devastating massacres at an Orlando nightclub, a
Las Vegas concert, a Pittsburgh synagogue and the high school in Parkland,
Florida - the very atrocities that have motivated legislative efforts. In
fact, among the 39 public mass shooters between 2007 and 2015, each of whom
killed at least four victims, 23 successfully survived background screening,
notwithstanding whatever indications there were of dangerousness.
guys can still get guns if they want
Even if forbidden from
purchasing legally, determined assailants can, of course, acquire a gun
through alternative avenues, be it by borrowing a firearm or obtaining a
stolen weapon from the underground market. Had Roof been prevented from
obtaining his firearm through a licensed seller, it is doubtful he would
have abandoned his murderous plan.
Regrettably, the bureaucratic
failure that contributed to the Aurora workplace rampage is not unique. For
example, the gunman who killed dozens of churchgoers in Sutherland Springs,
Texas, also passed a background check when information regarding his history
of domestic violence was never submitted to NICS.
Through the Fix
NICS Act of 2017, Congress allocated funds incentivizing local authorities
to be compliant in submitting to information on individuals prohibited from
purchasing firearms. Even with the many system improvements over the years,
however, errors and oversights are to some extent inevitable.
Despite the limitations inherent in any screening strategy, we should at
least make it more difficult for prohibited individuals to acquire a
firearm. Although not a panacea, H.R. 8 and 1112 represent important steps
toward rationalizing federal gun regulations and making America safe again.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on
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