By Chris W. Cox - 03/18/13 10:59 PM EDT
Will trampling the rights of law-abiding gun owners really do anything to help keep our children safe? Will piling unnecessary weight on a federal regulatory system that’s already drowning help keep guns out of the wrong hands? The answers, of course, are “no” — which is why a so-called “universal background check” system should be dismissed by any lawmaker who is serious about protecting constitutional freedom and improving public safety.
A mandate for truly “universal” background checks would put the federal government squarely in the middle of every sale, loan or gift of a firearm between private individuals. In other words, it would criminalize all private firearms transfers, even between family members or friends who have known each other all of their lives.
Under current law, anyone who purchases a firearm through a retail channel — whether it’s online, in a gun shop or at gun show — must first clear a check through the NICS. Federal law at this time prohibits more than 10 categories of individuals from purchasing firearms, including felons, the mentally ill, drug users and others.
But it can’t be effective unless the NICS database contains good and complete data — which it currently does not.
According to FBI data, as of 2011, 23 states and the District of Columbia submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to NICS. Seventeen states submitted less than 10 records, and four states submitted no mental health records at all, not to mention the fact that states aren’t submitting all the felony records they’re supposed to send to NICS.
In addition to its data problem, NICS is currently bogged down by hundreds of thousands of records that it shouldn’t contain. These include the records of veterans who have been arbitrarily disqualified by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as records that are incomplete or inaccurate — “a common occurrence,” according to the Justice Department.
Lack of enforcement is also crippling the current system. Although it’s a federal crime to submit false information on a federal firearms purchase form, only 62 out of 72,659 such cases were prosecuted in 2010 — and only 13 of those resulted in convictions. This means that prohibited persons who are caught by NICS are being turned loose to obtain firearms elsewhere, rather than being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
According to Vice President Biden, the reason for this near total lack of enforcement is that “we simply don’t have the time or the manpower to prosecute everybody who lies on a form, that checks a wrong box, that answers a question inaccurately.”
How then does it make any sense to add countless law-abiding Americans to an already overwhelmed and crippled system? Shouldn’t the immediate focus be on getting a meaningful increase in the enforcement rate? Shouldn’t Congress and the White House be working to get mentally ill people and felons into the database so we can actually have a chance at preventing them from purchasing firearms?
These objectives would be the focus if the goal was public safety. But it isn’t.
What we’re seeing with this current debate is symptomatic of a problem that has plagued Washington for a long time. Tragedy strikes, and very well-meaning sentiment builds around a worthy cause. Unfortunately, it isn’t very long before the cause gets co-opted by politicians who care less about the cause itself and more about how the cause can help them advance a personal political agenda.
The leading culprits in this case — President Obama, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to name a few — are lifelong anti-Second-Amendment politicians. Their obsession with “universal background checks” has nothing do with public safety. Rather, they rightly see such a system as a major advance toward the holy grail of anti-gun laws: gun registration.
In fact, Obama’s own Justice Department recently reported that the effectiveness of a “universal” background check system “depends on ... requiring gun registration.” In other words, the only way that the government could fully enforce universal background checks would be to mandate the registration of all firearms in private possession — something that has been prohibited by federal law since 1986.
Criminalizing private firearms transfers through a “universal” background check system would not have prevented any of the tragedies that spurred the recent misguided push for more gun control. Not a single one. Such a policy would, however, enable future tragedies by diverting scarce federal resources away from the vastly and dangerously overburdened NICS. It would also unduly burden law-abiding Americans from exercising their fundamental right to keep and bear arms. For these reasons, lawmakers should oppose it.
Cox is the executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action and serves as the organization’s chief lobbyist.