We know exactly how much these laws matter. Under current law, dealers keep records of their buyers’ “Form 4473” background check forms, which provide necessary tools for police in pursuit. But private sellers keep no records at all: Not only does the private sale loophole allow them to make sales without running background checks, but it also means there is no paper trail. And without a paper trail, law enforcement often can’t connect a gun to the criminal who fired it. We’ve seen our police officers shot — and then been unable to trace the guns.
On August 29, 2010, in Chief Citty’s own department, Oklahoma City police officer Katie Lawson was attacked by a man armed with an AR-15, who fired 26 rounds and hit Officer Lawson six times. Miraculously, she survived. Law enforcement located the firearm in a house occupied by a number of individuals and traced the gun, to the gun dealer who initially sold it. Using the Form 4473 kept by that dealer, police were then able to identify and find the first retail buyer.
But because that buyer turned around and sold the gun privately at a gun show, there was no requirement for him to run a background check and no record of the sale — meaning that the trail ran cold. In this case, police were lucky enough to identify the shooter through other means, but the inability to trace the firearm could have left an attempted killer on the loose. Police officers like Officer Lawson face enough danger every day.
We shouldn’t have to come up against broken laws that allow dangerous people to buy guns—and then be denied the records we need to catch criminals.
The private sale loophole is a national problem that needs a national solution. It’s good news that states like Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland have taken action in the wake of Newtown, but states can’t do this alone:
Pennsylvania has gone beyond federal law and required checks for all handgun sales, but this strong legislation couldn’t stop Jon Schick from killing one person and injuring seven others at Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Institute on March 8, 2012. Schick was severely mentally ill and had been barred from owning guns after a violent altercation with police. But after he failed a background check in Oregon — which has closed the private sale loophole for gun shows — and left a gun show empty-handed, Schick simply traveled to a state with weaker gun laws. In New Mexico, he legally bought two murder weapons from a private seller, without facinga background check. Schick then traveled to Pennsylvania to plan his attack.
State-by-state legislation wasn’t enough to save Lindsay Harvey’s life either. Lindsay was a DNA scientist for the army in Maryland, which has closed the private sale loophole. And yet she was shot and killed on April 13, 2008 by a convicted felon who bought his gun without passing a background check. Her killer, Shawn Henderson, was able to get his murder weapon easily: He met a seller in Washington, D.C. — which requires background checks for all sales — and the pair simply drove to Virginia together to complete their transaction. Because of Virginia’s weak laws, the private seller wasn’t required to screen Henderson—who then returned to Maryland with a murder weapon in hand.
Congress can close this dangerous loophole. Simply expanding the current background check system to cover private sellers would change the story, allowing law enforcement to follow guns into the private market and catch criminals. Without record-keeping provisions, a new law won’t help the next Officer Lawson. Background checks are easy and fast, and record-keeping doesn’t compromise the privacy of law-abiding gun owners. That’s why 82 percent of them support background checks on all sales. And that's why 92 percent of the public supports. Now is the time to act.
Citty is the chief of the Oklahoma City Police Department, and Jim Johnson is the chief of the Baltimore County Police Department and chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.