Less gun madness within our reach
‘ We must do something.” It’s what we always hear in the wake of senseless tragedies like the shooting that left 26 people dead in a Texas church, many of them children. Then the standoff begins. For Democrats, the answer is, often, gun control. What kind, exactly? Any and all. Casting a wide net, they’ll say “common sense” laws like “expanded background checks” and making it harder for people convicted of domestic violence to get a gun.
While federal legislation has lagged, states have passed dozens of small bills which tweak access to guns or ammo. But of course, a background- check system already exists, and it is already illegal under federal law to possess a firearm if you’ve been convicted of domestic violence.
For Republicans, the answer is often better mental health fixes. What kind, exactly? They’re not sure. Casting a wide net, they’ll talk in platitudes about more funding for research and the need to address “societal and cultural ills.” In 2016, the Republican House passed The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which provides more hospital beds for shortterm mental illness and expands parental access to medical records if their child is over 18. It was a good first step, but, of course, the Republicans’ budgets and healthcare proposals would chip away at mental health coverage for many.
What both sides largely ignore, however, is that there is something substantive, meaningful and relatively uncontroversial that we can do. Immediately.
We can actually use our existing background check system — meaning, implement it effectively. As was the case in Texas, and as, it turns out, is too often the case, our National Instant Criminal Back- ground Check System is just not being used the way it was intended.
Let me explain what the NICS system is supposed to do.
As you probably know, before anyone can purchase a firearm, federally licensed retailers are required to run a background check through an FBI database, called NICS. The NICS system then alerts retailers to anything that might prohibit the potential buyer from owning a firearm: mental health issues, a criminal record ( domestic violence included) or a history of drug abuse.
The Texas killer should have been in that system due to any number of bright red flags, from being involuntarily committed to a mental facility to his conviction for domestic abuse. However, although he was convicted of assault in a military court, the Pentagon failed to submit the records to the database — and ultimately he was allowed to buy guns, including the one used to carry out the attack.
This is not just a failure of the Pentagon. Many states also fail to submit records to the NICS system. According to the FBI, at the end of 2012, 19 states had submitted fewer than 100 records to the NICS system, and 12 of those states had submitted fewer than 10. I don’t think anyone believes there could have been only 10 cases of convicted felonies, domestic abuse or mental illness in any one state in any given year.
So what’s the solution? We can’t make states send their records to NICS. The 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits that. But there is a leading effort to shore up the system. It’s called FixNICS, and it has successfully incentivized states to submit every record to NICS, through grants and legislation campaigns.
Since it began in 2013, the number of disqualifying mental health records submitted to NICS increased by 170 percent, according to the FBI.
The biggest successes were in Pennsylvania, which went from one record in 2012 to 794,589 records, and New Jersey, which went from 17 to 431,543.
There is no law, no single gun or ammunition restriction and no accessory ban that would have a bigger impact on reducing gun violence than using our existing background check system effectively. Relatively speaking, those are gimmicks.
Rather, if every state reported every record, every time, many would- be terrorists or mass murderers with criminal or mental health records would at the very least have a very difficult time getting a weapon.
The Texas shooter is not the first who has fallen through the cracks. The Virginia Tech shooter, the Washington Navy Yard shooter and the perpetrator of the 2009 Jupiter, Florida, rampage might all have been stopped if those mental health records had been submitted to NICS.
Before you decide that Republicans and the gun lobby will stand in the way of such a solution, you might be surprised to learn who launched the FixNICS program. It’s the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the organization that represents gun manufacturers, retailers and ranges.
So, there are no excuses. This is the something we can do now.
Horses graze in a pasture Wednesday near a memorial for the 26 victims of the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
| SCOTT OLSON/ GETTY IMAGES