Shoot­ings ex­pose gaps in back­ground check sys­tem

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS -

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.

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