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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.

About to 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 dealers.

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 online.

Beef up the background checks we have

A less 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 controlled substance.

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.

Many 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.

Bad 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 Twitter @jamesalanfox.

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