Here’s the Deal With Background Checks on Guns

People line up in front of a gun shop in Los Angeles

Since 1994, more than 3 million illegal gun sales have been prevented by background checks.

The question of how to reduce gun violence has a different answer depending on who you ask. About half of Americans consider gun violence to be a big problem, but more than eight in 10 Black adults think it’s a very big problem, compared to just under four in ten white adults. Attitudes are similarly divided along partisan lines, with at least eight in ten Democrats favoring the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, and a majority of Republicans in opposition.

Polling versus policy

One measure to limit gun sales has broad partisan support: subjecting private gun sales, and gun show sales, to background checks. This measure can be effective — since 1994, more than 3 million illegal gun sales have been prevented by background checks — however key loopholes in the process still need to be closed.

As the New York Times notes, just hours after the reprehensible massacre of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde on May 24, Democrats moved to prepare the way for votes on legislation to toughen background checks.

Reviving efforts to pass stricter gun laws

Historically, Republicans have dragged their heels on two bills Democrats are now trying to reignite: one aiming to expand criminal background checks for online and gun show gun buyers, and another to extend the delay for gun buyers highlighted by the instant background check system to give the F.B.I. more time to investigate them. There has been a slight attitude shift in the last few years, however — notable after the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio — and though GOP senators appeared reluctant to budge earlier this week, a few Democrats are optimistic that proposals that have demonstrable support across the aisle may yet have legs.

The ‘Charleston loophole’

A key priority for Democrats is the HR 1446 bill, which is backed by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and has been passed by the House. This aims to close the “Charleston loophole,” which currently means that some licensed gun sales are completed before the necessary background checks are satisfied, because purchases proceed by default after three business days. It was thanks to this oversight that a White gunman was able to buy a firearm with which he later slaughtered nine worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

HR 1446 would increase the time that a federal firearms licensee must wait to get a complete background check for an unlicensed person to at least 10 business days. If this time ran out and the check wasn’t complete, HR 1446 would mean the purchaser had to ask the FBI to finish its investigation before authorization was received.

On Tuesday night per CNN, Senate Democrats moved to add the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 to the legislative calendar. The measure would have to get at least 60 votes to override a filibuster, which it’s unlikely to obtain at the moment — though its supporters say that shouldn’t be a deterrent.

“I think we need to hold every member of Congress accountable and vote so that the public knows where every one of us stand,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on Tuesday according to CNN. “I think there may well be areas of agreement. I have come close to agreement with a number of my colleagues on a red flag statute.”

Unlicensed and private gun sales

At the moment, background checks aren’t required for firearms sales by private and unlicensed vendors. The HR 8 bill, aka the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, would extend the background check requirement to cover all gun sales and transfers. The bill passed the House in a 227-203 vote last year, with one Democrat opposing, and eight Republicans voting in support.

Based on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s failed 2013 effort to pass a compromise bill that would’ve required background checks on commercial sales, but allowed individuals to sell to family and friends without checks, HR 8 is unlikely to survive the Senate’s filibuster rules — even allowing for majority support.

“It makes no sense at all why we can’t do commonsense — commonsense — things and try to prevent some of this from happening,” a frustrated Manchin said on Tuesday per The Hill.

“You would think there’d be enough common sense,” he added according to The New York Times. “The filibuster is the only thing that prevents us from total insanity.”

On Wednesday, Toomey reportedly showed signs of a renewed effort to push background checks through.

“I think the thing that would have the best chance would be the thing that has gotten Republican support before, which is expanding background checks,” he said.

‘Red flag’ laws

Per Axios, red flag legislation appears to be the most likely path to limit gun violence based on lawmakers’ current positions. Such legislation would give authorities powers to confiscate guns from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others — though several Republicans feel this should be for states, not Congress, to decide.