But Seriously, About Those Background Checks…

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There are a lot of reasons people have against expansion of background checks for gun sales, and by and large, they blow. (Photo Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

You may have heard the Senate was scheduled to vote on four pieces of legislation regarding gun control. Well, it happened—and all of them failed to pass. Big shock, I know. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s  (D-CA) proposal to allow the Attorney General to deny firearms and explosives to suspected terrorists was defeated 53 – 47, falling short of the needed 60 votes to pass. Sen. John Corryn’s (R-TX) bill to permit authorities to delay a gun sale if a judge rules there is probable cause to deny the firearm outright failed by the same margin. A proposal from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to expand background checks for all gun purchases, even through gun shows and online, was split 56 – 44. And Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-IA) bill to increase government funding to run background checks without requiring their expansion likewise failed to reach the magic number of 60, with Democrats reacting negatively (and understandably so) to an amendment which would allow people involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for a “mental illness” to buy a gun once released.

 

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) put it pretty succinctly when he said, “Senate Republicans ought to be embarrassed, but they’re not, because the NRA is happy.” It’s no secret that, regarding Congress’s persistence in acting against the desires of a majority of Americans with respect to gun control, the National Rifle Association, a small but powerful (and persistent) group is the one pulling the strings in the Republican Party. With all of the above votes, splits occurred more or less along party lines. So, if you are dismayed by the results of the above exercises in futility, you know who you have to personally thank.

Why is the NRA so resistant to an expansion of background checks, in any form? I’ve heard a number of their talking points before on this matter, but just for kicks, I decided to sift through a more detailed explanation on why the National Rifle Association rejects all attempts to promote gun control. On the official website for the NRA-ILA, or the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm, there is a page regarding background information on background checks in the U.S., the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and various arguments surrounding these topics. The following is my attempt to make sense of the NRA’s rhetoric herein. Feel free to read ahead—or skip down to the conclusion if you think you know where this is going.


According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), 77 percent of criminals in state prison for firearm crimes get firearms through theft, on the black market, from a drug dealer or “on the street,” or from family members and friends. Less than one percent get firearms from dealers or non-dealers at gun shows.

What this citation doesn’t show, however, is that only 2% of all firearm-related crimes in the U.S. are homicides. Flipping this relationship around, the results are pretty staggering. This same report found that 60% to 70% of all homicides from 1993 to 2011 were committed with a firearm. That’s a majority, and it doesn’t even begin to consider those gun-related deaths which are suicides. To speak of the sources of firearms in terms of all firearm-related crimes is disingenuous, as much as insisting that guns are irrelevant in homicide statistics would be obviously foolish.

According to the nation’s leading criminologist specializing in the study of murder, Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally. Certainly, people cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange or act in an odd manner. Besides, mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends.”

This argument cites a column by Northeastern University professor of criminology James Alan Fox, who makes a number of valid points about gun control and mass shooters. The NRA’s reference curiously, though, leaves out the closing of the article. In spite of all of Fox’s arguments which would seem to go against gun control advocates’ contentions, he has this to say about potential legislative solutions:

Sensible gun laws, affordable mental-health care, and reasonable security measures are all worthwhile, and would enhance the well being of millions of Americans. They may do much to impact the level of violent crime that plagues our nation daily. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of crime in its most extreme form. Of course, a nibble or two from the prevalence of mass murder would be reason enough. And efforts to promote real change in our social policies would be a fitting legacy to the tragedy in Newtown.

In short, even James Alan Fox doesn’t believe in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater when it comes to gun laws designed to make us safer. Even if these reforms may not stop mass murders, which are salient, newsworthy events, there nonetheless may be merit in passing new restrictions on gun sales.

None of the mass shootings that President Barack Obama named in a White House speech on gun control in January 2016, would have been prevented by requiring background checks on private sales of firearms.

I’d like to give you a comprehensive report which the NRA-ILA cites with this statement, but it doesn’t exist. Even though this claim may be true, the NRA is essentially citing itself. Just a point of caution. Moreover, these are but a few examples that don’t speak to the possible effect of background checks on mass shootings on the whole. This article by Alan Yuhas in The Guardian points to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety—an organization with a clear bias, but still—that illustrate a negative correlation between states that require background checks for all gun sales and incidence of mass shootings. Meaning as background checks go up, mass shootings tend to go down.

And there are additional food-for-thought-type stats cited in the Yuhas article that don’t relate to mass shootings necessarily, but do invoke a link between domestic violence, guns and fatalities, and likewise suggest background checks might be helpful in restricting access to guns for would-be murderers. All this with a ban on gun research and publishing data that the NRA has, in large part, effected, so think of what else we might find with fewer restrictions on access to data.


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“There is no gun show loophole. Climate change is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese.” What other dumb conservative ideas can we add to the mix? (Photo retrieved from about.com)

 

But, wait, there’s more! In explaining why it opposes more background checks, the NRA has a number of reasons at the ready related to the notion “gun control supporters are not being honest.” Here’s a sampling of the best points—a dubious distinction, to be sure.

Background checks are not “the most important thing we can do.”

The NRA-ILA is referencing a quote by Michael Bloomberg about background checks being the “single most important thing we can do to reduce gun violence,” and then cites a number of articles which point to a reduction in crime, none of which list gun control among the reasons crime has declined. That’s all well and good, but first of all, how can we list gun control among those reasons, when the NRA itself has all but single-handedly blocked attempts at reform? Secondly, again, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison that is being made. The NRA is talking about a reduction in all crime, not just gun violence or mass shootings.

Thirdly, in enumerating the reasons why crime rates have gone down, some of the underlying causes are fraught with their own issues. We’re putting more criminals behind bars, but this is leading to overcrowding in prisons and is hurting whole communities, predominantly those populated by minorities. Policing is more proactive, but it’s not above criticism (allegations of brutality, civil asset forfeiture, a growing militarization of forces—shall I go on?). And there are fewer opportunities for home invasions related to the recession—because people can’t afford to live in their houses anymore or are otherwise have been foreclosed on by their lender(s). Not exactly a rosy picture, is it?

There is no “gun show loophole.”

Hmm, that’s not what Wikipedia says.

“Loophole” is a phony term.

Hmm, that’s not what the dictionary says.

It’s not “40 percent.”

The NRA here is referring to a claim President Obama made regarding the notion 40% of firearms are sold without a background check, which has since been debunked, and quickly hereafter, a record low is referenced in the number of murders in the U.S. Yet again, this is a red herring from the NRA—whatever homicide rates are, there’s nothing to say background checks for all gun purchases can’t be implemented. These are two separate issues.

It’s not “92 percent” either.

OK, fine, how about 90%? Because that’s, like, what a bajillion polls will tell you about the notion that a vast majority of Americans want to see an expansion of background checks. The NRA-ILA points to one vote in Washington state in November 2014 in which only 59% of voters approved a private sales background check initiative as evidence. But that’s one vote in one state! And the initiative still was approved by a majority of voters!


Prior to an exhaustive recounting on the history of background checks on guns in America and the requisite Works Cited list, the NRA-ILA, on this same page, ticks off several gun regulations as proof that “federal gun control laws are already strong enough,” as if these restrictions, in them of themselves, are inherent proof of this logic, such that we don’t require additional considerations for “online” or “Internet” firearm sales. To stress, I am not target the audience for this litany of objections against the U.S. government and their supposed overreach. Nevertheless, a number of these provisions seem fairly sensible to me:

  • Federal law prohibits transferring a firearm to anyone known or believed to be prohibited from possessing firearms. Sounds good to me. If you shouldn’t have a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun.
  • Federal law prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a handgun outside his state of residence and prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a rifle or shotgun from a non-licensee outside his state of residence. Cool. On the subject of guns, I feel everyone who owns or sells one should be licensed.
  • Federal law prohibits anyone from transferring a handgun to a non-licensee who resides in another state (with rare exceptions), and prohibits a non-licensee from transferring any firearm to a non-licensee who resides in another state. This is essentially the same idea as the last specification, except involving transfer rather than acquisition of a firearm. Either way, you now know my stance regarding licenses for gun ownership and sales.
  • Federal law prohibits the acquisition of a firearm on behalf of a person who is prohibited from possessing firearms. Exactly. I don’t know how you’d prove that much if you’re the seller, but this seems logical.
  • Federal law also prohibits dealers from selling rifles or shotguns to persons under age 18. Yeah, I don’t know think I need to tell you this, but people over the age of 18 don’t always exercise great caution and judgment when using firearms. So, do I support guns for individuals under the age of 18? Hells to the no!

In fact, now that I get the sense that the major aversion to background checks is that they are supposedly ineffective at deterring gun violence and that they are inconvenient for prospective gun buyers, let me play devil’s advocate, from the perspective of the anti-gun control voter. If an expansion of background checks for all purchases/sales of guns won’t work in preventing gun-related homicides, nor will checking people seeking to buy firearms legally against databases such as that of a terrorism watch list, why not let us try anyway? I mean, are you worried about the potential cost? If so, are you that willing to put a price on measures that might save lives?

Or let’s look at these matters another way. If background checks are a symbol of the overreach of the federal government and of stripping away our personal freedoms, namely that of the Second Amendment, then why aren’t you as concerned about the hypothetical situation of the government invading the privacy of Muslims and others it regards as a threat? Isn’t that overreach and, in all likelihood, a violation of the Bill of Rights? Or is it OK if it happens to someone else, one of them? You can’t have your cake and eat it, too—no matter what Donald Trump says.

Maybe as a non-gun-owner I just don’t understand, but as a concerned citizen, I can’t see any justification for failing to expand the use of background checks for all firearms transactions. Not any good one, at least. We can cherry-pick the statistics that support our points. We can use the Second Amendment as a crutch. We can say “guns keep us safe” until we’re blue in the face. On all counts, though, I think these positions fail to hold up under further scrutiny. Background checks may not have prevented the Orlando shooting or any number of mass shootings in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right thing to do.

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