Trump’s right — background checks won’t stop all gun violence. They’re only the start of what we need to do.

Authorities cordon off an area of sidewalk in Odessa, Texas, on Saturday after a gunman shot several people.
Authorities cordon off an area of sidewalk in Odessa, Texas, on Saturday after a gunman shot several people. (Mark Rogers / Associated Press)

President Donald Trump, who favored expanded background checks after the Texas mass shooting at the beginning of August, opposes them after the Texas mass shooting at the end of August. Amid vague promises of comprehensive gun violence legislation to reporters at the White House on Sunday, Mr. Trump opined that “For the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it.” That’s particularly ironic, given that Texas and federal authorities say the alleged gunman in the most recent shooting, in Odessa, had previously failed a background check and got the weapon used in the attack (an AR-15-sytle rifle) without going through one. It’s ironic but not particularly surprising; President Trump has occasionally strayed from the National Rifle Association party line only to be jerked quickly back when the time came to support something like the expanded background check bill passed by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives that is sitting in Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk drawer.

Whether we find out that the gunman in this case used one of the legal loopholes to avoid a background check or whether he got his firearm illegally doesn’t ultimately matter. Apologists for inaction on gun laws can always find a reason why any particular measure might not have made a difference in one mass shooting or another. And we will absolutely grant the point that requiring background checks for all firearms sales, even private ones, would not immediately end all gun violence. But that’s an argument for treating universal background checks as a starting point, not an excuse for failing to even do that much.


Currently, only sales of guns by federally licensed firearms dealers are subject to background checks, but legislation awaiting action in the Senate would expand that to cover all sales, and another bill would increase the amount of time gun dealers are forced to make customers wait while the checks are pending. (The shooter in the 2015 Charleston church shooting was able to get his gun because of the current three-day time limit for background checks despite a record of illegal drug possession which would have led to a denial.) There is no rational argument for why we should make sure people who purchase guns in one way aren’t felons or drug addicts, don’t suffer from mental illness or haven’t been dishonorably discharged from the military, but not if they buy them through a different and equally legal means.

We fully acknowledge that research on the effectiveness of background checks to stop violent crime in general and mass shootings in particular is inconclusive. Data on gun violence is spotty because of decades of restrictions on federal funding for such research, and the effectiveness of checks is difficult to measure because their implementation varies so significantly. Although the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is run by the federal government, it relies on the completeness of data uploaded by the states and on the cooperation of local authorities for its implementation. Unsurprisingly, that has proven uneven. So Mr. Trump is right; just passing background check legislation isn’t enough. The federal government also needs to devote the necessary resources to ensure that they are not just universal but universally effective.

If we eliminate the legal loopholes for criminals to buy guns, won’t that just send more people into the black market? Probably. That’s why a series of other measures like handgun purchase licensing and criminal penalties for the failure to report lost or stolen weapons are so important. Both would help reduce the phenomenon of straw purchases in which individuals who are legally able to buy guns turn around and sell them illegally to criminals. Maryland and a handful of other states have such laws, but most don’t. (In fact, when Missouri repealed its handgun licensing law, it saw a 25 percent increase in its rate of gun homicides, among a host of other negative effects.)

What is crucial, though, is for new gun control measures to take place on the federal level. A state like Maryland can enact its own strict background check and licensing laws, for example, but it does little good if neighboring states don’t. In 2017, 53% of the guns used in Maryland crimes that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was able to trace came from other states; the national average was 29%.

Every day we wait means more senseless death. While President Trump was boasting about “a big package of things that’s going to be put before” Congress to deal with gun violence, Baltimore experienced at least two mass shootings over the weekend, one on Friday that killed one and injured three and another on Monday that killed one and injured two. At least five other people were shot in Baltimore on Monday in separate incidents. Universal background checks may not solve the entire problem, but they’re a great place to start. The legislation is ready and waiting in the Senate. Mr. Trump’s endorsement could finally make it happen.