It defies logic that in a country like the United States, a firearm can be purchased with no record of the transaction, and no review of whether the purchaser is legally prohibited from possessing a firearm.
In other words, a totally anonymous transaction; no questions asked.
What this means is that convicted rapists, murderers, known terrorists, and any other individuals not legally entitled to possess a firearm don't have to sneak into an alley to get a gun.
They don't have to hide their faces. They can go to a public park, answer an ad in the paper or on the Internet or, worse, go to an openly advertised venue for gun sales such as a gun show or flea market—where in most states, sales of firearms from person to person are entirely un-regulated.
Could it be any easier for criminals and terrorists to arm themselves? Why are our elected officials failing to vote for some reasonable regulation?
More interestingly, since legislation to require universal background checks is so desperately needed, what do politicians use as their rationale for not voting to close this unconscionable gap in federal law?
History—and recent Supreme Court rulings—supports the notion that the Second Amendment “right to bear arms” is not unlimited, and that firearms can be governed by reasonable regulations, such as background checks.
The 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA) was carefully crafted to regulate access to (but not ban outright) “gangster-type” weapons such as machine guns, short-barreled shotguns, which at the time were disproportionately being used to create terrible carnage and mass murder, by requiring that they be registered.
That regulatory process has expanded, since 1998, to include the requirement of background checks on all purchasers who obtain firearms from federally licensed dealers. The dealers use, free of charge, the National Instant Check System (NICS) to conduct the checks.
The system is fast and easy to use, and it falls within the Supreme Court's guidelines that such checks are reasonable and not unnecessarily intrusive.
Every law-abiding federally licensed seller of firearms in the U.S. is compelled by law to conduct these background checks on prospective firearms purchasers. Yet, despite being a “reasonable” requirement, it took almost 13 years to get it enacted.
Are background checks becoming a “slippery slope” toward outlawing guns?
Of course not. And now we know from the Supreme Court's rulings that the Second Amendment ensures that won't happen anyway.
Nevertheless, law-abiding, licensed sellers of firearms are painfully aware of a second tier of firearms sales that is entirely unregulated. They must watch as an inundation of unregulated firearms sales continues to allow entirely anonymous transfers of firearms.
Where in the modern world is there a similar illogical separation of rules for the acquisition of lethal weapons?
The explanation for this state of affairs is simple. Major lobbying groups purporting to represent the firearms industry and/or gun owners have blocked any further progress.
And to strengthen their hand, they have spread the handy (and false) rationales that many lawmakers have employed to vote against what polls indicate are the wishes of a majority of Americans who don't want criminals to be able to openly buy guns—and who favor universal background checks as a means to stop them.
We hear our elected officials spouting some of these exaggerations, if not outright lies—and one has to wonder if they know what they are saying.
Is it possible that they don't realize that they have been misled? That would be an optimistic way of looking at it.
In many cases, however, the likely answer is that they are all too aware that what they are saying doesn't hold any water.
Here are some examples:
“The National Instant Check System is broken, and so it should not be expanded”
The truth is that NICS works phenomenally well. It's a proven system that provides a response on a background check generally within 30 seconds, and has already processed more than 17 million transactions since 1998 for federally licensed firearms retailers. More importantly for public safety: Since 1998, more than one million persons who are federally prohibited from possessing firearms have been denied!
Some critics claim the system is broken because it has yet to have full access to every single U. S. mental health record. That is silly. There are 12 categories of federal prohibitions for firearms possession, certain mental health conditions being one of them. The NICS system currently does an excellent job of reviewing a tremendous number of state and federal criminal histories and most other records used to make determinations.
Admittedly, access to mental health records is a complex issue, multiplied by 50 states, and there is a lot of room for improvement in the system.
But it should also be pointed out that mental health denials have accounted for approximately 1% of all denials since 1998. Convicted felons alone account for more than half of the denials. This “broken” system has more than one million times denied a firearm to prohibited purchasers.
That seems to prove that it works, doesn't it?
“The proposed Universal Check system will create a National Firearms Registry”
Entirely false. When NICS was developed, a standard protocol to destroy the records of approved transfers of firearms within a few hours was included. The system does not retain any records of these approved transfers and is not a national registry of any kind.
“The proposed Universal Background Check system will favor gun show sales, while retail dealers will have to wait”
Entirely false. But a clever twisting of facts. The NICS system would not differentiate between licensed retailers, whether at a gun show or at their established place of business. NICS currently handles significant increases in firearms sales volume on weekends, and that is when most gun shows take place.
The recently proposed legislation did include a provision to expedite transfers at gun shows if the background check was not completed in two days, rather than the current three. That would have no impact on the speed in which the checks are conducted for any licensed dealer, regardless of their location.
“Retail dealers simply don't want it”
That not only defies logic, but also goes against what a lot of dealers say in private. The requirement to go through a licensed dealer for a background check would bring in an enormous influx of customers to retail dealers. Dealers would undoubtedly charge a fee for the checks, which would increase revenue.
The money made on the transactions would be dwarfed by money that purchasers would likely spend on holsters, cleaning kits, ammunition, accessories and other merchandise. In fact, universal background checks would bring significant economic benefits to licensed firearms dealers.
“Having to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer places an undue hardship on lawful firearms purchasers”
Really? Is it a chore to go to the hardware store for a hammer, or to the grocery store for food? There may be some places in this country where the nearest firearms retailer is far away; but for the most part, this simply isn't the case. Does it make sense to ignore public safety in favor of a very few folks who live 100 miles from town?
“Criminals steal guns, they don't buy them”
Or more correctly, perhaps, they have been denied the ability to buy them more than a million times under the NICS system. Sure, criminals steal guns. But they do also try to buy or trade for them. Not very successfully where there is a background check; but very easily where there isn't one, such as at gun shows and flea markets where they can obtain weapons from complete strangers with no paperwork.
“Only honest people who follow the law will be affected”
Only people who follow the law register their cars and get driver's licenses too. Also affected by Universal Background Checks, and adversely, will be those who claim to conduct ostensibly legal, anonymous sales of firearms to complete strangers.
Universal Checks are not going to end violent crime, but they will make transfers of firearms to prohibited persons easier for law enforcement personnel to detect, deter, and punish.
Dispelling these myths underlines the point that there is no good reason for blocking efforts to ensure the legality of a firearm transfer.
And our inability to curb illegal transfers hurts us beyond our borders. Many countries not only find the current ease of access to firearms in the U.S. bizarre; they also find it irritating that firearms made in the U.S. reach their shores and contribute to their violent crime.
Recent statistics have shown that since 2000, the rate of firearms-related homicides has decreased. It might be difficult to prove, but one has to wonder if the background checks that have been required since approximately the same time have played a role.
Benjamin Hayes recently retired as Special Agent, Chief, Law Enforcement Support Branch, National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He welcomes comments from readers.