No-Brainer Gun Control We Can Do Now

Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Washington again will echo with calls for tougher gun control to stop firearm deaths and counter-calls to defend the Second Amendment against government overreaching.

In the morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a second post-Newtown hearing, this one focusing on so-called assault weapons: military-style semiautomatic rifles such as the one used by the Connecticut elementary school killer in December. In mid-evening, President Obama will endorse rifle and ammunition-magazine bans in his State of the Union address to Congress.

All of that heated speechifying is largely for show. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives will almost certainly not pass anything labeled a “ban.”

The real action concerns background checks. According to the New York Times, a bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has quietly been negotiating over a middle way to expand the instant background-check system already on the books so that it applies not only to sales by licensed dealers but also to the 40 percent of gun transactions involving non-licensed “private collectors.”

Despite fierce opposition by the National Rifle Association, “universal” background checks have a chance to reach Obama’s desk, in no small part because most of the gun industry—the companies that manufacture and market guns and ammo—can live with all sales going through the computerized system (as I reported last month).

Even if universal background checks become the law of the land, however, they will be much less effective than they otherwise could be. Why? Because the Obama administration has not pushed aggressively to improve the system’s infrastructure. You read that correctly. The current White House has dropped the ball in providing badly needed funding to make background checks more effective.

In a must-read column published online by my colleagues at Bloomberg View, Frank A.S. Campbell, chief executive officer of Highland Strategies, a security-consulting firm, points out that even after multiple mass shootings committed by various deranged murderers, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) lacks crucial public records of people who have been deemed mentally ill and therefore ought to be banned by law from obtaining firearms. Congress responded to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre by passing the NICS Improvement Act, authorizing $1.3 billion in grants to fund state agencies and court systems to create the needed infrastructure to get those records into the system.

“Yet even after additional mass shootings, the authorized sums were never requested by the president or appropriated by Congress,” Campbell writes. “Indeed, the plan has received only token funding—$50 million since 2009, or 4 percent of the authorized amount. As a result, information collection remains uneven, the database full of gaps.” Campbell knows what he’s talking about: He previously served as a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general and helped design and oversee the NICS program.

Even now, the Obama administration supports increasing funds for NICS improvement from $5 million in 2012 to only $20 million in 2013 and $50 million in 2014. “This,” Campbell argues, “is nowhere near enough.”

This is also no-brainer gun control that we can do right now—that we could have been doing—without emotional debates about the Second Amendment. In future posts, I’ll point out additional steps the federal government can take to blunt gun violence, all of which focus on who gets access to guns, rather than the always-radioactive idea of banning particular types of guns or gear.

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