Background checks vital to success

For all the talk of deep divisions and irreconcilable differences in our country’s debate over guns, there is overwhelming support among the American people for common-sense laws that balance our right to bear arms with our responsibility to protect our communities. This especially holds true for requiring criminal background checks on every gun sale — a measure that 91 percent of Americans favor, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The nearly universal consensus on background checks shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. For more than 40 years, they have been extremely effective at keeping dangerous individuals from obtaining guns. But what’s often overlooked is their crucial utility for law enforcement officials nationwide. During 25 years of service as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, I saw firsthand that background checks work — not just as a preventative measure, but also as a means to catch those who slip through the cracks.


There is a hazardous loophole in our system, however, that allows criminals to get their hands on guns effortlessly: Unlicensed “private sellers” are not required by federal law to conduct background checks, which means up to 48 percent of U.S. gun transfers are completed with no paperwork and no questions asked.

In order to make the most substantial impact in the fight to end gun violence, our leaders in Washington must close this enormous gap by extending a tried and true safeguard to cover all firearms sales.

Background checks prevent felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and other dangerous people from buying guns in the first place.

Since its inception, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has blocked firearms purchases at licensed dealerships by millions of individuals who are barred by federal law from owning them.

But because no particular mechanism can act as a panacea, our background check system plans for the inevitability that sometimes guns will fall into the wrong hands. Since 1968, the system has required licensed dealers to keep basic sales receipts for all firearms transactions, which serve as critical resources for law enforcement officials who are investigating violent gun crimes.

When I used to assist in local police efforts after a gruesome shooting or a deadly rampage, these records enabled us to quickly track down suspects by tracing the serial number, make and model of a gun used in a crime through the ATF. Probing the chain of custody for a specific gun made it possible for law enforcement to catch criminals and protect our streets that much more. And because these receipts are stored in a decentralized manner across more than 100,000 federal firearms licensees, they do nothing to compromise the privacy of law-abiding gun owners.

Yet there remains a small minority who falsely claim that background checks, and the very limited amount of paperwork they require, will result in the creation of a national registry. Leading the charge on this misinformation campaign are the extremists who head up the Washington gun lobby — specifically, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre.

In a Jan. 22 speech in Reno, Nev., LaPierre said that President Obama hopes to expand background checks so he can ultimately establish “a massive federal registry.” This simply isn’t true. Federal law explicitly prohibits the creation of a registry of gun owners, and the FBI is required to destroy records of successful background checks for firearms transactions within 24 hours of the check. That’s why there is no centralized national repository for gun sale records, nor could the government ever create one if we extended checks to private sales.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee’s recent hearing on gun violence in America, LaPierre also claimed that expanding the system to unlicensed sellers would create a vast background check bureaucracy.

Wrong again.

These checks are an accepted part of buying a gun. They take no more than a few minutes and they’re far less onerous than picking up a prescription. This is why a recent survey from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, found that 82 percent of gun owners — including 74 percent of NRA members — back this sensible measure.

As we continue to have a meaningful and necessary discussion on guns in this country, we must not lose sight of the critical importance of the background check system — both as an initial deterrent and a vital law enforcement tool. A successful framework has been in place for years.

Now, for the sake of Americans everywhere, we must work to ensure that it covers private sales, too.

Chipman, a former special agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is a law enforcement consultant for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.