Our Fixation on Universal Background Checks is Killing Us

Responding to intense pressure following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated his chamber will consider background checks legislation when it reconvenes in September. More than 200 House Democrats are asking McConnell to vote on H.R. 8, a universal background checks bill passed in February with just eight Republican votes. It seems like a remarkable and rare opportunity to take meaningful federal action to reduce gun violence, but the truth is less promising. H.R. 8 is marred by a noxious anti-immigrant amendment; and it’s debatable whether the legislation would have any discernible impact given how frequently violent Americans pass instant computer background checks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded H.R. 8’s passage as a “historic victory” despite failing to whip her caucus on a critical Motion to Recommit vote

Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia used a legislative maneuver called a Motion to Recommit to add language to H.R. 8 requiring the FBI to notify ICE whenever an undocumented immigrant is blocked during an attempt to purchase a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL). Twenty-six Democrats defected and voted with Republicans to approve the motion, leaving gun violence survivors “crying and confused” in the gallery above the House floor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi angrily confronted Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and blamed him for the defections in front of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. Then she stood in front of reporters and portrayed the passage of H.R. 8 as a “historic victory.”

The purpose of Collins’ sabotage was to drive a wedge between gun control groups and intersectional allies like Immigrant Defense Project and United We Dream, who oppose H.R. 8 as amended. Collins also succeeded in dividing House Democrats. “Squad” members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were furious about feeling obligated to vote for a bill that empowers “an agency that forcibly injects kids with psychotropic drugs” — all because of a lack of party discipline. By contrast, the GOP never allowed the Democrats to win a Motion to Recommit vote when they controlled the House from 2010–2018.

Republican Georgia Rep. Doug Collins (center) hoped to divide House Democrats and the gun control movement with his Motion to Recommit on H.R. 8. He succeeded.

Perhaps House Democratic leaders rationalized their loss on the MTR vote with the thought that H.R. 8 had no chance of moving in the Senate. The ICE language couldn’t become law if Mitch McConnell simply continued his blanket refusal to consider gun control legislation. The public’s reaction to the shootings in El Paso and Dayton flipped that script, however. McConnell now feels that some action on gun control is necessary for his political survival, but there’s no way to compel him to remove a rider that Nancy Pelosi allowed.

Another looming specter is the inefficacy of the background checks themselves. Both the El Paso and Dayton shooters passed the instant computer background checks H.R. 8 seeks to expand. They’re not alone. The FBI looked at dozens of active shooters in the U.S. and discovered just two percent obtained guns illegally. Another study analyzed 156 mass shootings and found 77 percent of the guns used were legally purchased.

The weapons of war used in the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio on August 4, 2019 were legally bought. This is the norm, not the exception.

It’s not that shooters lack history of violent and threatening behavior. The El Paso gunman was a white supremacist who posted a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto to an online message board. The Dayton shooter was expelled from high school for keeping a “hit list” and “rape list.” The problem is the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) is incapable of finding this history.

The instant check system was originally designed by the NRA as a poison pill to undermine the Brady Bill. The idea was a screening system for gun buyers predicated on speed and making the sale — 92% of instant checks are completed in just two minutes. The gun lobby wanted no interaction between law enforcement and gun buyers — just a single computer ping from an FFL to the NICS database to search for disqualifying criminal and/or mental health records.

Six Democratic presidential candidates (Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Hickenlooper, Warren, Yang) have gone beyond instant checks to recommend a national licensing system for gun owners. Licensing would mandate a waiting period, fingerprinting, a face-to-face interview with law enforcement, and conversations with character witnesses who know the applicant best. Computer databases like NICS would be searched for disqualifying records, but the process wouldn’t rely on such instant queries. They would be just one element of a larger, more sophisticated investigation.

6 Democratic presidential candidates (including Elizabeth Warren) support national gun licensing, but have been unable or unwilling to explain why the failure of the instant check system makes licensing necessary.

If congressional Democrats and national gun control groups hope to block violent gun buyers at the point of purchase, they must shake their longstanding fixation on expanding the failed instant check system. Perhaps the impending train-wreck on a tainted H.R. 8 will finally bring the matter to a head and foster the policy innovation needed to halt the plague of gun violence on America.

Gun control professional/volunteer who’s worked for CSGV, George Takei’s One Pulse for America, MMM, MDPGV. Advocate for bolder pro-democracy agenda.

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