Lawmakers launch new effort at tightening background checks on gun sales


Capital News Service Washington Bureau

Amidst a surge in firearms sales, lawmakers in the Senate and House have introduced legislation expanding background checks for all gun purchases.

“Background checks are simple, easy, and they save lives. That’s why more than 90 percent of Americans support our legislation to make sure no guns are sold in this country without a background check,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and the lead sponsor of the background check measure in the Senate, said in a statement Tuesday. 

His bill has 45 Democratic co-sponsors, including Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.“If there is no background check, there should be no sale of a firearm,” Cardin said in a statement. “The goal is simple: keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t be able to buy them.”“Gun violence has plagued too many families in Maryland and across the country. Universal background checks will save lives,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, introduced a similar bill in the House, where a background checks bill passed two years ago but then died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Thompson’s bill includes GOP co-sponsors and could be voted on as early as next week.

“Time and time again, we have seen that the American people want universal background checks, in fact public polling shows that the majority of people, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, support this,” Thompson said in a statement.

The bills are aimed at closing the so-called “gun show loophole,” under which private gun sales – on the web, from homes and at gun shows – have not required federal background checks.

About 20 percent of gun sales are conducted without background checks, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“We need action to help stop the violence that claims over 100 lives every day and disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities,” Brady President Kris Brown said in a statement.

The National Rifle Association denounced the background check bills, saying on its website that the measures “would criminalize the private transfer of firearms.”

The lawmakers acted as President Joe Biden considers using executive orders to enact what he calls “common sense” gun control measures.

Biden last month also called on Congress to toughen gun control laws, including not only requiring background checks on all gun sales, but also banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and eliminating legal immunity for gun manufacturers.

Biden said his administration “will not wait for the next mass shooting” to act.

“We will take action to end our epidemic of gun violence and make our schools and communities safer,” Biden said. “We owe it to all those we’ve lost and to all those left behind to grieve to make a change.”

The day chosen for his announcement was especially significant: (colon) as it was the third anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members were killed.

Biden has made clear that gun control measures are a top administration priority, consistent with a central theme of his presidential campaign. 

Biden and other administration officials already have met with several gun safety advocacy groups. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said that Democrats would work with the Biden White House to enact background check legislation. The Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act were both passed by House Democrats in 2019. 

Murphy has met with Susan Rice, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, to discuss the stronger background checks. He has been a strong proponent of gun control since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state. Twenty children and six adult staff members died in that tragedy.

Various gun control groups have praised the changes that Biden said he wants to make to gun laws. 

“Joe Biden ran on one of the strongest gun violence-related platforms of any candidate who’s run for president, especially in the general election,” said Adam Patrick, director of political communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “He has supported extreme protection orders, universal background checks and for a long time he’s championed the assault weapons ban.” 

Biden isn’t new to fighting for gun control. In 1993, then-Sen. Biden worked to pass the Brady bill, which implemented the modern background check system that advocates are now pushing to reform. He also helped to create the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired a decade later despite congressional supporters’ efforts to renew it.

Despite the support from the Democratic members of Congress, Biden faces stiff opposition from most Republicans, especially in the Senate. Their party leaders have a history of blocking gun safety bills. 

“You look at the history of gun violence prevention, for a long time it was a third-rail issue,” Patrick said. “It is something that has evaded real action in Congress and has seen a lot of progress in the states. But people need federal laws.”

Despite what has happened in the past, Patrick said the new proposals for greater gun safety have a better chance because the Democrats control both houses of Congress.  

But public support for change has waned a bit. According to a Nov 16 Gallup Poll, public support for stricter gun laws is at the lowest level since 2016. Fifty-seven percent of respondents supported stricter gun laws, 9 percent wanted less strict laws, while 34 percent wanted no changes. 

The FBI said it processed a record 39.7 million firearms background checks in 2020, the highest annual number since the agency started recording this data in 1998. 

Even if enacted, new gun laws also are likely to be challenged in the courts. And some local law enforcement officials have said they wouldn’t enforce new gun restrictions.

Sheriff Richard Mack of Arizona, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), said that gun control is unlawful. 

“You would think that somebody that’s been in Washington, D.C., for 47 years would know that gun control is against the law of the United States of America and that he swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution,” Mack said, referring to Biden.

Mack’s group represents more than 1,000 officers across the country. According to Mack, the majority of them refuse to enforce any gun control laws that might be implemented, adding that he and his allies “will not violate the Bill of Rights.” 

But other law enforcement groups, such as the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as many mayors and other local officials, have called for tighter gun laws. Survivors of mass shootings and parents of mass shooting victims also have mobilized to join with gun safety groups to press for new laws.

Former President Barack Obama weighed in on Twitter last week: “Even as we focus on fighting COVID-19, it’s important to recognize that there’s another pandemic raging right now—one that’s decades in the making and unique to the United States. We need to treat gun violence with the same urgency and resolve.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, tweeted back, thanking Obama.

“The urgency to deal with gun violence has never been greater,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with @POTUS @JoeBiden to start this work and to save lives.”

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