The House of Representatives conducted its first hearing on gun violence in eight years on Wednesday, addressing the overwhelmingly popular policy of universal background checks. Predictably, not a single Republican on the House Judiciary Committee spoke in favor of H.R. 8, which would require universal background checks on all private sales of firearms save transactions between immediate family members. Instead, Republicans made a novel and curious argument against the legislation, suggesting that a national registry of firearms is required to properly screen gun buyers for history of violence.
GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia brought the point up first. “There is no way to actually regulate private [gun] sales,” he told witness Robyn Thomas of the Giffords Law Center. “It needs a registry, because you can’t keep up with it without a registry.” Collins’ argument that H.R. 8 is unenforceable was parroted by Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota. Both Republicans cited a 2013 white paper written for the Obama administration by then-National Institute of Justice (NIJ) deputy director Greg Ridgeway.
Ridgway’s paper, titled “Summary of Select Firearm Violence Prevention Strategies,” focused solely on gun homicide, ignoring gun suicide and accidental deaths with firearms. Ridgeway described it as a “cursory summary of select initiatives to reduce firearm violence and an assessment of the evidence for [them].” In a section on universal background checks, Ridgeway wrote, “A perfect universal background check system can address [transactions at] gun shows and might deter many unregulated private sellers. However, this does not address the largest sources [of crime guns].” Ridgeway cited a 2000 ATF study that found that 47% of crime guns were obtained through federally licensed dealers (FFLs) via illegal straw purchases. Straw purchases involve legal buyers who pass background checks and purchase firearms for prohibited parties (felons, fugitives, those under active restraining orders, etc.). Ridgeway argued that a universal background checks policy would be strengthened by complementary efforts to curb straw purchases.
The NIJ deputy director also identified registration as a policy that would make gun buyer screening more effective. “Universal checks are insufficient for ensuring that firearm owners remain eligible [purchasers under federal law],” he wrote. “Convictions, mental health issues, and restraining orders can develop after the background checks [during original retail purchases from FFLs].” Ridgeway added:
Currently [National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS)] background checks are destroyed within 24 hours. Some states maintain registration of all firearms. Gun registration aims to 1) increase owner responsibility by directly connecting an owner with a gun, 2) improve law enforcement’s ability to retrieve guns from owners prohibited from possessing firearms. Gun registration also allows for the monitoring of multiple gun purchases in a short period of time.
The argument made by Reps. Collins and Armstrong — that a universal background checks policy cannot be enforced without a federal registry— was never made by Ridgeway in his white paper. Then again, the two Republican Congressmen weren’t making their argument in good faith. Both Collins and Armstrong were endorsed by the NRA in the 2018 election cycle and rated ‘A’ or better. They know the NRA has added language to multiple federal laws in the past expressly prohibiting the creation of a federal registry of firearms. They also know the gun lobby was nearly successful in adding similar, binding language to H.R. 8. Collins and Armstrong would be the first to fight any attempt to repeal this prohibition.
Reps. Collins and Armstrong were instead seeking to stoke irrational fears in the GOP base and protect gun industry profits by ensuring that traffickers can (continue to) purchase firearms from retailers in the primary market and re-sell them on the unregulated secondary market to prohibited purchasers. The NRA, predictably, acted in lockstep with its lackeys after the hearing concluded, fear-mongering about universal background checks being “just the first step” in a campaign by “anti-gun extremists” to “erode the Second Amendment.”
The malicious stunts by Republicans at the H.R. 8 hearing beg an important question: Why do congressional Democrats continue to put forward modest gun control policies like universal background checks when Republicans won’t even support those? Why not introduce bolder legislation that would disarm violent people in this country and actually lower the gun death rate?
Ridgeway’s analysis might have been cursory, but he was not wrong in his assertion that a universal background checks policy has significant limitations. And it’s not just because instant checks fail to account for criminal and mental health history that might develop after someone buys a firearm. In many cases, checks through NICS fail to uncover past examples of violent history!
Take, for example, a 2018 FBI study that looked at 63 American mass shooters. The FBI found that very few of them obtained their murder weapons illegally. A plurality, forty percent, passed instant checks and legally obtained guns despite exhibiting “at least 4–5 concerning behaviors” noticed by those around them. These behaviors included symptoms of mental illness, physical aggression, and negligent handling of firearms. Additionally, several state-level studies are emerging showing universal background checks policies alone fail to reduce firearm homicide and suicide rates.
For some reason, congressional Democrats have made no attempt to fix our deeply flawed instant check system for gun buyers (which was designed by the NRA, BTW). Instead, they have favored temporary gun seizure policies that correct mistakes made at the point of purchase after-the-fact, like Emergency Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs). After the ridiculous and insulting display by NRA-owned Republicans at the H.R. 8 hearing, gun control advocates should start asking Democrats why they aren’t going bigger.
It’s time to call Republicans’ bluff. If they want to argue that a system of federal firearms registration would better disarm violent individuals, Democrats should go with it! Such a policy would save far more lives than an expansion of instant checks and debating Democrats can point to the National Firearms Act, which requires licensing and registration of fully-automatic machine guns and has kept them off crime scenes almost completely since 1934.