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Better Background Checks Are First Step to Saner Gun Laws

Photographs by Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View Close

Photographs by Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

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Photographs by Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

The work of Vice President Joseph Biden’s task force on revamping U.S. gun laws is complete. The next steps are up to the president and Congress.

We are heartened to hear that the Biden panel is recommending a number of executive actions, such as increasing federal research on gun violence and prioritizing prosecution of those who lie on criminal background checks. These steps are important and necessary, yet they are not sufficient. The strength of the opposition must be tested, the public must be engaged, and a legislative fight must be waged.

A good first battle should be a law requiring every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check. An estimated 40 percent of gun sales take place in an unregulated private market that enables virtually anyone with cash to secure an arsenal.

This is often called the “gun-show loophole” but it extends to the Internet, the back alley, the garage and anywhere private buyers and sellers do business. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teens who committed mass murder in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, purchased their guns through a straw buyer. When a licensed gun dealer wanted her to file paperwork, the trio instead went to a gun show where the boys’ firearms were purchased and no questions were asked.

Before its relatively recent radicalization, the National Rifle Association noted that a waiting period on gun purchases could help “in preventing people with criminal records or dangerous mental illness from acquiring guns.” Now, the organization uses the gun-show loophole it championed to argue that “gun laws don’t work.” Like the NRA’s war on research, which has resulted in restrictions that deny policy makers basic facts about gun violence, this stratagem must be defeated. No gun law will work perfectly. (No traffic law or campaign-finance law does, either.) But background checks can work vastly better than they do.

Every gun purchase should require one. States that do a poor job of keeping relevant records and of providing them to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System should be given incentives to comply fully. Mental health records -- perhaps a majority of them -- never enter the system. Seung-Hui Cho had been diagnosed with emotional disorders yet passed a background check to obtain the guns he used in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University. Jared Loughner, whose victims in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 included Representative Gabrielle Giffords, passed a background check despite having told the Army that he was a drug abuser.

Better records management may lack emotional appeal as a rallying cry, but it’s a vital step in what promises to be a long and arduous process. In fact, if we could choose only one legislative remedy to enact this year, it would be comprehensive background checks supported by greater scrutiny -- including audits -- of shady gun dealers. A tiny percentage of dealers supply an inordinate number of the guns used in crimes. These dealers should be put on notice. If they continue to sell to criminals, they must be shut down.

We are aware that comprehensive background checks can accomplish only so much. Research by Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis has found that most of those incarcerated for firearms crimes purchased their guns on the secondary market where background check aren’t conducted. Little progress can be made so long as this unregulated bazaar remains in operation.

Gun lobby theatrics often appear absurd to those outside the fold, but they are well-financed, targeted and effective at cowing legislators, including some Democrats, into endorsing the lobby’s tragically narrow perspective.

The White House and its allies in Congress will have to be shrewd. And they will have to be relentless. With polls showing strong public support for comprehensive background checks, it’s the right place to begin. Such legislation will make America safer, and enable us to move to the next item on the list of needed gun reforms.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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