Less gun mad­ness within our reach

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - S. E. CUPP Con­tact S. E. Cupp at these­cupp. com. This col­umn first ap­peared in the New York Daily News.

‘ 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

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