Shootings expose gaps in background check system
In America these days, you never have to wait long for the next mass shooting — or for the next revelation that someone who should never have had a gun somehow got one anyway.
The latest is the 59-year-old man with a history of mental and legal problems who shot up a movie theater in Lafayette, La., last Thursday. Authorities said John Houser had walked into an Alabama pawn shop last year and legally purchased the handgun he used to kill two and wound nine before shooting himself.
Just a week earlier, a 24-year old man allegedly used an AK-47style rifle to kill four Marines and a sailor at a military facility in Chattanooga, Tenn. Authorities have been coy about how Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez obtained his four guns, except to say that he might have gotten some illegally. A friend told reporters Abdulazeez got his guns online, where background checks are relatively rare.
And last month, nine members of a Bible study group were shot to death in a church in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, who managed to buy his .45-caliber Glock handgun legally despite previously admitting to drug possession that should have stopped the sale.
These three shootings are just the latest evidence of the need to improve and expand the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Run by the FBI, NICS generally works well for a system that processes more than 20 million gun purchase applications a year. More than nine of 10 gun buyers get a yes or no within minutes, and fewer than two of every 100 buyers get turned down.
Since background checks began in 1994, those rejections have stopped more than 2.4 million gun sales, helping to keep firearms out of the hands of felons, fugitives, drug users, and people a judge has found to be mentally ill or requiring a restraining order for domestic abuse.
Even so, gaping holes remain in the system. About 40% of gun sales — chiefly those at gun shows and online — face no legal requirement for a background check outside states that have made their laws broader than the federal one. Congress had a chance to expand background checks in 2013, after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., but shamefully refused to do so.
Even when background checks do apply, they don’t always work. That needs to be fixed, too. It’s not uncommon for disqualifying information to never get into the database the FBI uses to check gun buyers. That’s how the deranged student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 was able to buy his firearms legally: Virginia hadn’t bothered to submit the record of his judicially ordered mental treatment.
Gun rights advocates claim that the whole background check system is flawed beyond repair. Quite the contrary. The latest spate of tragedies shows how it needs to be fixed. The FBI ought to get five or seven days, rather than three, to complete a check; sales at gun shows and over the Internet should be included; and states have to do a better job of adding restraining and involuntary commitment orders to the database. Lives depend on it.
John Houser with a swastika banner on his pub in LaGrange, Ga., in 2001.