As happened after the Virginia Tech mass murder in 2007, the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has focused attention on the nation’s loophole-ridden system of background checks required for gun purchases. Although system error was not at fault in the Connecticut shooting, as it was in Virginia, gun-control advocates estimate that thousands who should not possess a firearm still are able each year to buy one because the FBI database is incomplete.
The federal system fails in two fundamental ways. First, it covers only sales by licensed dealers, not private transactions at gun shows and elsewhere. That leaves an estimated 40 percent of gun transactions not subject to checks.
The second flaw well illustrates the power of the gun lobby. In 1997, a lawsuit by the National Rifle Association resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made compliance with reporting requirements voluntary.
A recent check by the federal Government Accountability Office showed 30 states were not making all records available. Reporting of mental health records — at issue in the Virginia Tech case — has improved, but 19 states (among them New Jersey and Pennsylvania) have submitted fewer than 100 records for those involuntarily committed or judged mentally incompetent. Compliance also has proved weak on records relating to drug abuse and domestic violence.
After Virginia Tech, federal grants were available to encourage states to comply, but the money came with strings attached. The NRA insisted states also set up a system for people to petition to restore their guns rights, a big disincentive to apply for the money.
As part of a comprehensive look at gun control, a re-examination of the FBI background checks must be near the top of the list, lawmakers looking for ways to encourage states to more accurately report data. Then, Congress finally should get serious about closing the “gun show” loophole, which allows private sellers at thousands of events to skip background checks while licensed dealers with a booth next door must comply.
Without these changes, background checks for gun purchases provide a mere illusion of safety, increasing the risk of guns in the wrong hands.