SALT LAKE CITY — Congress and the Trump administration appear to be coalescing around expanding background checks for firearms purchases, and gun rights advocates might be willing to lose that battle in order slow the momentum of the anti-gun movement, according to a gun policy expert.
On Friday, President Donald Trump said he could rally Republicans around stronger federal background check laws, the Associated Press reported.
“I see a better feeling right now toward getting something meaningful done,” Trump told reporters when asked why the political environment was different now. “I have a greater influence now over the Senate and the House.”
In address to Congress, Trump also claimed that the National Rifle Association "will either be there or either be a little more neutral” on background checks.
The NRA has historically stopped any strengthening of federal gun restrictions, even background checks, in the wake of past mass shootings. And a statement released this week indicated it hasn’t changed that position following the recent shootings in California, Texas and Ohio that killed more than 30 people and injured dozens more.
“I can confirm that the NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre said a statement, as the Washington Post reported. “The inconvenient truth is this: The proposals being discussed by many would not have prevented the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton. Worse, they would make millions of law-abiding Americans less safe and less able to defend themselves and their loved ones.”
Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively on gun policy and the NRA, said the organization is more vulnerable with the pro-gun control movement gaining momentum and recent infighting weakening NRA leadership.
He suggested the NRA could quiet the gun debate by agreeing to expanded background checks on private gun sales.
“This is one area where I believe the NRA is ultimately willing to give ground, especially if such action more or less satisfies the country that something is being done,” Spitzer said in a email to Deseret News. “If the only actions that result at the national level from the current controversy are uniform background checks and a red flag law, the NRA will not have done so badly.”
But research suggests licensing requirements for gun purchases are more effective than background checks in ensuring firearms don’t get into the wrong hands.
Background checks, red flag laws
Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled House passed two background check measures. HR8 would prohibit the transfer of firearms without a background check performed by a licensed gun dealer. An exception would be a gift between spouses.
While titled the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, it passed mainly on a party-line vote with Utah GOP Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis and Chris Stewart voting against it. Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams voted yes.
The second bill, HR1112, would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” by giving the FBI 10 days, instead of current three-day window, to conduct a background check for a firearm purchase. The tight time frame allowed condemned murderer Dylan Roof to purchase the firearm he used to slay nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Roof’s criminal record should have prevented him from purchasing the weapon, but a foul-up in the background check resulted in a delay.
The bill closing the loophole also passed the House in a largely party-line vote in March with all of Utah’s representatives voting against the measure.
Both bills appeared dead in the Senate until this week when fatal mass shootings that claimed 31 lives in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, prompted congressional leaders and others from both parties to support strengthening background checks. Trump reportedly told Democratic leaders that he will review HR8, and he will be speaking this weekend with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports red flag laws — which would allow a family member to petition a court to take guns away from people who might hurt themselves or others, according to The State, a Columbia, South Carolina, publication.
“I just think the space to do nothing is gone,” Graham said. “And that’s a good thing.”
An effective solution
Even gun rights advocates acknowledge they are at a disadvantage in this recent debate with the NRA weakened by allegations of financial misconduct among its top leaders.
"They've lost some of their ability to respond because they are distracted, and they are losing funding, and they are losing support. And whatever statements they make are also losing efficacy because of the damage that's been done to their reputation," Rob Pincus, a leader for the pro-gun rights group Save the Second, told NPR.
But Spitzer said the organization still wields considerable clout within the Republican Party "and the forces in the country that oppose stronger gun laws are still in place in the Republican Party and in red states."
"Further," Spitzer continued, "Wayne LaPierre and other NRA people still have the president’s ear and continue to be decisive in shaping his thinking, even despite the things Trump has said (Friday)."
Surveys by the Pew Research Center show broad public support for background checks in general and for expanding those checks to private transactions, such as gun shows. A poll taken last fall found 85% of Americans support background checks for private transfers of firearms. Support was strong among Democrats (91%) and Republicans (79%). Even gun owners support the checks with 73% of Republican gun-owners in favor and 91% of Democrats who own guns.
While it's unclear how Congress and Trump would expand the current background check system to keep guns out of hands of mass murderers, a recent study found that a licensing requirement for gun purchasers would be the most effect remedy to gun violence.
After Connecticut adopted a licensing law in 1995, gun homicides dropped by 40% and gun suicides dropped by 15% over 10 years. In contrast, after Missouri repealed its gun licensing law in 2007, firearm homicides increased by 17%-27% through 2017, according to the study by the Center for Gun Policy and Researchat Johns Hopkins University.
Researchers also found that the current background check process relying soley on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is inherently flawed by faulty record keeping and incomplete databases.
“So when you have a comprehensive background check law by itself that relies on that system with those inherent weaknesses, you’re not getting the same benefit as you would if you give law enforcement more time and the ability to look at state and local records in addition to the federal system,” study co-author Cassandra Crifasi said to Connecticut Public Radio.
Only nine states and the District of Columbia have a licensing requirement for gun purchases.