Senator wants to mandate background checks for all gun sales

All gun sales – even private transactions – would require a background check under legislation unveiled Wednesday by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Current law requires that only licensed firearms dealers perform background checks, but Schumer says those rules don’t go far enough to keep guns from the hands of violent criminals, the mentally ill, drug abusers and other prohibited buyers.

“Lax reporting by states and federal agencies has allowed guns to get into the hands of dangerous individuals with consequences that have been tragic and deadly,” Schumer said Wednesday in a statement.

The idea is not new, nor is the timing an accident. The debate over background checks has grown louder in the wake of last month’s assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz. The suspect in that shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, reportedly had little trouble buying a handgun, despite previous concerns about disturbing behavior and habitual drug use.

Schumer’s bill would also hike the financial penalties for states that don’t report certain criminal and mental health records to the FBI, which manages a federal database – the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) – designed to block gun sales to the mentally ill and other prohibited buyers.

A 2008 law, passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, provided financial incentives for states to report cases of mental illness to NICS, but the system remains largely voluntary. Indeed, the maximum penalty for states failing to report at least 50 percent of relevant records is a 3 percent cut in certain Justice Department grants designed to bolster law enforcement efforts.   

Schumer’s bill would hike both the reporting requirement (to 90 percent) and the grant penalty (to 25 percent) by 2018.

The shooter in the Virginia Tech tragedy, Seung Hoi-Cho, had been found by a judge to be mentally ill, but Virginia never reported the case to NICS.

The changes would affect some states more than others. Through August of last year, 10 states had not reported any cases of mental illness to NICS, while 28 states had submitted fewer than 100 records, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group.

By contrast, Virginia — the site of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre — had reported almost 140,000 records over the same span.

The gun lobby has opposed the new background check requirements, saying they violate privacy laws and basic Second Amendment freedoms.

Schumer rejected those arguments this week.

“This legislation does nothing to impinge upon gun owners’ rights,” he said, “but it does provide greater incentive for reporting individuals who should not have access to guns to a national do-not-sell list, helping better protect innocent Americans from senseless gun violence.”

Tags Chuck Schumer

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