The task force established by President Barack Obama to recommend ways to reduce gun violence and sales of assault rifles has a lot of ground to cover.
It must prescribe ways to restrict sales of guns to criminals and the mentally ill, who now can dip into the vast stockpile of unregulated purchases. And to do that, it must improve the reach, quality and timeliness of the data that underlies background checks.
These goals are achievable, but only on two conditions: First, states must be persuaded, or coerced by Congress, to cooperate with the federal government efforts to sensibly control gun sales. Secondly, Congress must also must unshackle the federal agency responsible for policing illegal gun sales — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tax, Firearms and Explosives — and expand its budget and manpower. To meet these challenges, it must confront the gun lobbying industry head-on.
Recent reports by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns and The New York Times, among others, reveal the enormity of these challenges, and especially the willful political hobbling of agencies charged with enforcing reasonable gun-control laws already on the books.
Though the government began requiring background checks for gun buyers nearly two decades ago, large and growing gaps remain in the FBI's database of criminal and mental health records. These gaps annually allow thousands of people with criminal or mental health illness to buy guns.
Why? States are not required to participate in the federal background check system or to share criminal and mental health records with the FBI and ATF. That is voluntary under a 1997 Supreme Court ruling. Hence the background check database is a patchwork system at best.
Many states routinely ignore submittal of mental health records to the FBI database. The bulk of the mental health records on file come from just 15 states; most of the others — including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama — submit few, if any, such records. A Government Accountability Office report in July documents that. It found that 30 states were not providing noncriminal records to the FBI, nor were many states providing criminal records in a timely and comprehensive way.
To make matters worse, the FBI is also required to act within three days of a request for a background check for a pending gun purchase. If it fails to do so, gun store owners are allowed to proceed with a sale. That provision annually allows thousands of criminals, felons, fugitives and mentally ill people to purchase a gun in a gun shop that attempts to comply with the background requirement.
Such gaps can be devastating. Prior to the mass murder at Virginia Tech in 2007, a Virginia state judge had declared Seung-Hui Cho mentally ill. But since his record had not been forwarded to the FBI, he was allowed to purchase the rapid-fire weapons that he used to shoot and kill 32 fellow students and wound 17 others. Virginia subsequently became the leader among states that submit mental health records, turning in a 2,254 records per 100,000 population.
Most other states failed to follow suit. Tennessee has submitted just 82 per 100,000 population, according to a survey of all 50 states by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns association. Fourteen states have submitted fewer than one mental health record per 100,000 population, a mere blimp on the chart, compared with the 15 states that account for the bulk of such records.
Though the FBI estimates that it is able to complete an estimated 90 percent of background checks within three days, its records show that 22,162 guns were purchased under the three-day rule that would not have been allowed if the background check had been completed. But it is unable to determine how many of those guns were used in crimes, because Congress, pressured by the gun lobby, barred tracking of that useful information.
The biggest loophole is the lack of any requirement in most states for a background check of gun purchases from private owners, including many such purchases at public gun shows. This gross loophole accounts for an estimated 40 percent of all the nation's gun purchases.
Following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Congress allowed the federal government to provide grants to states to improve relevant reporting on background checks. The National Rifle Association, however, got Congress to dilute that effort by limiting the grants only to those states that established an easy way for people to petition their state government to restore their right to purchase a gun. Not many have managed to cross that barrier, so the grants have done little to improve record sharing.
The legislative hobbles on the ATF are equally pervasive. NRA-subservient senators have refused to confirm a new director for the agency for six years. A New York Times report found that congressional legislation constricting the ATF and successfully pushed by the NRA: prevents the bureau from performing more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers; reduces the falsification of records by licensed dealers to a misdemeanor; fuzzes up the legal language of allowable gun-trade business without a dealer's license; limits the bureau's ability to share gun sales records with local and state law enforcement agencies; prohibits sharing of anything but aggregate data to the public; prohibits the bureau's use of tracing data in some cases involving gun dealers' licenses; and requires information on background checks to be destroyed within 24 hours of use.
Such onerous barriers severely undermine comprehensive efforts to contain illegal gun trading and record sharing at all levels. That serves the NRA and the profits of its brethren gun manufacturers, which have made the United States the world's largest gun market, and home to half of the world's individual sales of firearms. But these industry-favored restrictions needlessly kill thousands of Americans every year.