Can universal background checks help curb gun violence?

Posted at 6:50 PM, Jan 16, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-07 12:01:52-04

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Conn., President Obama this week announced his gun control plan, which includes sweeping changes designed to make it more difficult for criminals and mentally unstable people to acquire assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The package features universal background checks for people looking to buy guns. Currently, U.S. law requires background checks for all people who try to buy firearms from federally licensed dealers. However, when someone tries to buy a gun from a private dealer or at a gun show – so-called “private transactions” – no background check is required. Right now, around 40 percent of gun purchases in the U.S. involve no background check.

“The White House is hoping to close a federal loophole that has existed for some time,” says,” says attorney Brian Albert of legal information website THELAW.TV

Some states, such as California and Rhode Island, require background checks for all gun transactions regardless of the type of gun or venue. Other states, like Pennsylvania and Maryland, require background checks for all handguns regardless of venue. Federal universal background checks have been proposed before, but until now the idea has been a non-starter politically.

“The NRA is an incredibly powerful lobby, but if there was ever a time to pass federal legislation such as this, this could be it,” says attorney Albert.

Some gun supporters have accused President Obama of capitalizing on the Sandy Hook tragedy to pass gun control legislation. After meeting with Vice President Joe Biden last week, the NRA issued a statement that said the White House used the time to “attack the Second Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, which gives Americans the right to bear arms. In an interview with CNN this week, NRA president David Keene said universal background checks and other gun control measures don’t work.

Others, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, believe the time has come for stricter federal gun control legislation, including universal background checks. At a two-day meeting on gun control policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this week, Bloomberg, the co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said universal background checks would not be unconstitutional.

“This not a constitutional question,” Bloomberg said. “This is a question of courage. There is no debate here. It’s common sense.”

One piece of common ground gun control supporters and opponents might be able to find concerns the accuracy of information about people who are mentally ill contained in the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS). Both sides agree that information needs to be tightened up. The shooter who killed 34 people including himself at Virginia Tech University in 2007 passed two background checks because the State of Virginia failed to enter his mentally ill status into the NICS database.