The federal government estimates in an old survey that as much as 40 percent of gun sales nationwide are between private parties. These require no federal background check. Just released from prison after finishing a sentence for second-degree murder? Or for a rape at gun point? Or for assault and battery? No problem. Just show up at a gun show with the cash and walk away with a wheelbarrow full of ammo and firearms.
But the National Rifle Association says we don't need no stinking background checks. All right, that wasn't quite the way Wayne LaPierre explained it in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. But close enough. The million-dollar-a-year executive vice president of the NRA told the senators: “My problem with background checks is you’re never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks.”
Malarkey. And LaPierre knows it's malarkey. But that never stopped him from repeating ludicrous claims when the NRA was riding high.
In fact, according to the FBI, its National Instant Criminal Background Check System has kept 700,000 ineligible Americans from buying firearms from licensed dealers over the past decade. Some felons obviously do try to buy guns from licensed dealers. The number of denials would no doubt have been higher had some states, egged on by the NRA, not withheld gun-related criminal and mental illness data from the feds.
In California, which has the strictest state-level gun-control laws in the nation, 600,000 guns were sold in 2011. About one percent of people who tried to buy guns from a licensed dealer were rejected when background checks were run on them. That means some 6,000 people who tried to buy guns were barred because of felony convictions or mental health adjudications. And you can be certain many others did not even try to buy a gun over the counter.
How many lives did this save? How many other violent crimes did it prevent? Unknown. But it would take a lot of dishonest juggling to claim that the number was zero.
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Of course, some felons and some people mentally unfit to own a firearm who were denied permission to buy surely obtained guns anyway. They bought them out of the trunk of a car, stole them from a glove compartment or a nightstand during a burglary. But one place they didn't get them in California was from a gun show or legally from a private seller. Because, unlike in every other state except Rhode Island, everyone who sells a gun legally in California must run a background check on the buyer regardless of whether the sale is over the counter at a gun store, at a gun show or between neighbors.
Most Americans, an overwhelming majority that includes a majority of gun owners, has shown in poll after poll that they support extending background checks to every gun sale. Even members of the NRA support universal background checks.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III is working with other Democrats and some Republicans to introduce such a bill. You would think that LaPierre would accept what the NRA supported not so very long ago: background checks with no loopholes. But no.
In their twisted reasoning, what LaPierre and crew would like to see happen to Manchin's efforts is what happened to another bill on the subject.
That bill languished in committee from the time it was introduced in May 2011 until the 112th Congress went out of business earlier this month. The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 was introduced by Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York and picked up 95 co-sponsors. Not only would it have extended background checks to all gun sales, it also contained penalties for states that withheld relevant arrest and other gun-related data. The bill never even got a hearing.
Any new bill needs to include McCarthy's provisions, but it also needs to mandate prosecution for violent felons who knowingly try to buy a firearm and are rejected because of the background check.
Background checks will not, of themselves, vastly reduce gun violence. But extending such checks is just one of several pieces of related legislation that should be enacted to reduce the number of gun-related tragedies we see every day in America. What's astonishing, infuriating and disgusting is that to pass even this mild, straightforward, sensible proposal to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others unfit to possess them will require a battle with the unhinged leadership of the NRA and its puppets in Congress. After 30 years of giving in to the gun lobby, it's encouraging to see that some elected leaders who have been previously quiet are ready to push back. Better late than never.