Four years ago, Dylann Roof provided ample evidence that the nation’s existing background system to prevent criminals, drug users and the severely mentally ill from buying guns is deeply flawed. In case anyone has forgotten — and the would be a shame, considering his crime — the still-unrepentant white supremacist murdered nine people attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. Given his criminal record, he should not have been able to purchase the handgun used in the shooting, but he did. It’s time to fix a system so easily exploited.
That day of reckoning may finally be at hand. This week, bipartisan legislation to strengthen the federal background check system is headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. With the number of mass shootings that have taken place since that South Carolina rampage — including the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Ill., involving a gunman who erroneously passed background checks twice before killing five co-workers — the effort is badly overdue.
Universal background checks, while hardly a panacea for gun violence, are such a common sense protection — in the manner of licensing drivers or requiring prescriptions for powerful drugs — that one would like to assume the measure will be on President Donald Trump’s desk before the end of the week. But that’s not the reality. Instead, Republican support for this and related measures is modest in the House and perhaps even more problematic in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate. As usual, the National Rifle Association is at the forefront of efforts to deep-six attempts to close the so-called Charleston Loophole — as if law-abiding gun owners would be seriously injured if they had to face an effective criminal background check instead of the dysfunctional system in place today.
What “horrors” does a universal background check involve? The one the NRA hates the most is the notion that private sales, and not just those involving licensed gun dealers, should face the background check. This used to be called closing the “Gun Show Loophole” because such private transactions often are performed at gun shows. And closing it was once treated as a pretty innocuous idea. Even then-President George W. Bush backed such legislation, as did the late Sen. John McCain. Maryland already requires a background check for all handgun purchases, but too many other states do not impose that requirement, leaving an uncomfortable state-by-state mishmash of background check laws.
Nor does closing the loophole address one of the chief problems that allowed Dylann Roof’s purchase: the 3-day time limit for the background check. A separate piece of legislation pending in the House would increase the limit to 20 days, a much more realistic time table.
It would be comforting to think that such limited and rational restrictions on gun purchases would rise or fall on their own merits, but we can’t help but observe that this week’s efforts are likely to be reduced to the customary partisan impasse with Democrats endorsing gun control and the majority of Republicans, including President Trump, reflexively opposing it. Even if, by some miracle, the Senate approves universal background checks or related legislation on a bipartisan vote, the president is certain to veto, and the Senate is unlikely to do anything about it.
That doesn’t make this week’s exercise futile; it makes it instructive. Americans need to hear why keeping guns out of the hands of felons, drug users and the severely mentally ill is such a terrible idea. And let us not be distracted by the usual whataboutism from those who think a background check somehow enables criminals. It’s all very well to enforce gun possession laws, too, but Americans support background checks. Polls show gun owners support them by overwhelming margins (a 2017 Pew Research poll found only small differences in the level of support for background checks between gun owners and non-gun owners with both hovering around 80 percent).
In the end, voters will get a say in 2020 about who can responsibly regulate guns in the United States — members of the party willing to impose an effective universal background check or politicians who go to the mattresses whenever the subject is even broached. Then, and probably only then, will Congress and the White House be prepared to follow a reasonable and rational course of behavior on gun violence policy.