The current law, thanks to lobbying in the early 1990s by the National Rifle Association, only covers gun sales transacted through federally licensed dealers, not private sales. The NRA didn't want any background checks at the time, but it saw the handwriting on the wall and compromised. Over the years, it has picked away at the requirement, weakening it whenever it could. Critics have claimed that criminals don't try to buy their guns legally so, therefore, the background check law doesn't work, can't work. But, in fact, since it was implemented, the system has stopped 1.9 million people barred from buying guns from obtaining them legally.
However, the system as now constituted means a percentage of guns—the actual figure is much disputed—is purchased or otherwise transferred each year without a check, at gun shows, over the back fence, out of the trunks of cars. Paroled murderers and people legally judged too mentally ill to own firearms can thus easily obtain them without anyone being the wiser. Private sellers can only be prosecuted if they intentionally sell a gun knowing that a person is barred from purchases. That is an exceedingly difficult threshold to meet in court, so private sales to felons and dangerously mentally ill persons go mostly unprosecuted.
In 2012, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System ran 16,808,538 checks for licensed dealer sales. Even if the figure for private sale is only 5 percent of that, it would amount to hundreds of thousands of guns bought each year without a background check being run. The actual percentage could be far higher.
That situation has made extending universal background checks to all sales the most popular idea for new gun-control measures, even though all newly proposed measures have received majority support. That includes a proposed assault weapons ban introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that is dead but not yet officially buried. Please continue to read about background checks below the fold.
The universal background check proposal is still alive. But it's on life support because of a dispute over record-keeping that the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and other gun-control advocates, say is essential to its effectiveness. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and other gun-rights advocates say this would create a registry that is a prelude to gun confiscation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hopes to keep a background check provision in the broader gun bill he introduced Thursday night for debate when the Senate returns to business after the Easter recess.
While nationwide polls can often paper over differences among states and districts, that seems not to be the case with the background check proposal. Quinnipiac reports:
Florida: 91–8 percent support, including 88-11 percent among gun owners (March 21)
Connecticut: 93-6 percent support, including 89-9 percent among gun owners (March 6)
Ohio: 90-8 percent, including 86-12 percent among gun owners (March 1)
Pennsylvania: 95-5 percent, including 95-4 percent among gun owners (Jan. 30)
New Jersey: 96-3 percent, including 95-5 percent among gun owners (Jan. 24)
Virginia: 92-7 percent, including 91–7 percent among gun owners (Jan. 10)
While none of those polls are of states west of the Mississippi, a poll earlier this month of residents of Utah where gun laws are lax and anyone, including legislators, can carry concealed firearms into the statehouse or other government buildings, found 83 percent favored universal background checks.
The will of the people is clear. The question, as so often with gun legislation, is whether the NRA will be able to thwart it.