“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) McGinty, E. E., D. W. Webster, J. S. Vernicle, and C. L. Barry. (2013) ‘Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 Survey.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 239-257.

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