Legislation to expand background checks for U.S. gun purchases, which has overwhelming public support and bipartisan backing in Congress, is at risk of being derailed by a paperwork requirement.
The National Rifle Association and some Republicans in Congress are arguing that background-check data could be used to build a secret national registry of U.S. gun owners. And that, they contend, may be used by the federal government to confiscate guns.
“When the universal background checks don’t work, then registration will be proposed to enforce them,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said as he voted against a background-check bill in a Senate committee last week. “And when that doesn’t work, because criminals won’t register their guns, we may be looking at confiscation.”
A 1993 federal law requires background checks for all commercial gun sales. Advocates for a tougher law -- including police officers, religious leaders and big-city mayors -- want to expand the rules to sales at gun shows and weapons transfers between non-relatives. It’s the one major proposal to curb gun violence made by President Barack Obama after the Dec. 14 shootings at a Connecticut elementary school that has bipartisan support in Congress. Polls show a majority of Americans endorse gun background checks.
Three months after 20 children and six employees were killed in Newtown, Senate Democratic leaders have dropped an assault weapons ban from proposed gun legislation. A ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines used in a number of U.S. mass shootings also faces strong opposition in Congress.
Licensed U.S. gun dealers have been keeping sales records, on government form 4473, since passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The proposal by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York would require firearms dealers to maintain paper records on behalf of private gun sellers as well.
Advocates say requiring background checks for private sales would help keep weapons away from criminals and mentally ill people at risk of committing violent acts. Federal law prohibits the creation of a national gun registry.
Senate talks aimed at gaining the support of Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican whose blessing is considered vital to bringing other Republicans on board, are bogged down over Coburn’s objections to the recordkeeping requirement. While Schumer is seeking other potential Republican sponsors from pro-gun states, so far there are no takers.
NRA President David Keene has maintained that universal background checks could lead to “forced buybacks” or door-to-door confiscation of weapons by the government.
“That’s a legitimate fear,” Keene said in a CBS News interview in January. The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA is the nation’s biggest pro-gun lobbying group, claiming 4 million members.
Public support for universal background checks remains strong. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Feb. 27 to March 4 found that 88 percent of respondents, including 83 percent of Republicans, favor background checks for all gun buyers.
The Gallup polling organization has found that few issues have such widespread support. In December 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 88 percent of Americans approved of military action in Afghanistan.
Last year, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks.
From March 1994 through the end of 2009, background checks blocked more than 2 million of 108 million attempted purchases of firearms in the U.S., according to the Justice Department.
Last year, about 6.6 million guns were sold privately without a background check, according to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
A 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of inmates convicted of gun crimes found that 80 percent acquired the weapons through a private transfer.
Joe Deaser, a gun-store owner and NRA member, testified before Congress last week in favor of expanding background-check laws.
“I can’t think of a more ridiculous thing to squabble about,” said Deaser, who owns a members-only indoor shooting range in Roseville, California, that requires background checks of its members.
Deaser said he receives calls from the Justice Department about three to four times a month to track weapons that may have been used in a crime.
“It’s just good business practice” to “know where your guns go,” he said.
Deaser checks prospective buyers against the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Within 24 hours of approval, those records are destroyed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, though Deaser is required by law to keep them for 20 years.
Deaser said there may be a disconnect between the gun lobby and average gun owners on this issue.
“I haven’t talked to anybody who isn’t behind this,” he said, calling the argument that it would lead to a national gun registry “just paranoid.”
Opponents, meanwhile, say that requiring gun-store owners to maintain records on behalf of private sellers would set a dangerous precedent.
Mike Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, said in some cases the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has copied gun store owners’ master lists of background-check receipts during annual inspections. He declined to identify the owners.
“What happens when everyone has a 4473?” he said. “Now is our opportunity to let the ATF hear how really upset we are with this practice.”
The ATF, which received 344,000 requests for gun-tracing from law-enforcement agencies last year, uses gun serial numbers to locate the manufacturer, which provides a list of distributors who are required to maintain sales records.
The agency is authorized to make photocopies to document violations by the gun store owner, including in criminal investigations, said ATF spokesman Mike Campbell. “We are not allowed to indiscriminately go in and photocopy all their records,” he said.
Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers in Florida, said the gun-registry issue is a major concern among some gun owners.
“That’s what they believe and that’s the way they vote,” Molchan said.
Further, he said, private gun purchasers might have to pay fees of up to $40 per background check. “It’s not worth the money,” Molchan said, maintaining there is no proof that background checks curb gun violence.
Police chiefs and detectives have testified at congressional hearings in favor of uniform federal background check laws, saying they are crucial to tracking weapons found at crime scenes.
“The only people that are against this are people that want to profiteer by being straw purchasers,” or individuals who purchase weapons on behalf of those prohibited from owning them, said Art Acevedo, the chief of police in Austin, Texas, who testified at a House hearing.
“It’s that rhetoric that feeds the extreme fear of people,” Acevedo said.
Joseph Bielevicz, a detective for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police who has investigated gun crimes for 12 years, described an undercover video that he said showed a purchaser at a gun show being permitted to buy a firearm after repeatedly saying he wouldn’t be able to pass a background check.
“We can’t fool ourselves into believing that all private sellers are as careful as they should be,” Bielevicz said. “Just because you’re inconvenienced does not mean your rights are being infringed. It’s reasonable, it’s logical and it needs to happen.”
If expanded background checks don’t advance in Congress it will be a big defeat for gun restrictions, especially as advocates counted on public outrage over the killings of school children to usher in a new era of gun laws.
“Many of us thought the background checks would be the easiest one,” said New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat and an advocate of gun restrictions whose husband was killed in a 1993 Long Island Railroad shooting. “It’s very frustrating.”
At the hearing, McCarthy asked Deaser for advice in reaching out to gun owners who Democrats say aren’t being fairly represented by the gun lobby.
“Maybe you have a strategy on how to reach out to our friends in the NRA?” she said.
In an interview following the hearing, Deaser offered this advice: Drop the fight for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from a broader gun-restriction package. “Most people connect all of these together,” he said.
On March 19, the Senate did just that, dropping from a proposed gun-restriction measure an assault weapons ban sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, which will now take the form of an amendment that lawmakers expect will be rejected.
-- Editors: Jodi Schneider, Justin Blum