U.S. lawmakers debating measures to curb gun violence are considering a law requiring background checks on everyone wanting to purchase a firearm. The current law requires such checks only for people who want to buy firearms from federally-licensed gun dealers, but exempts private transactions.
A series of high-profile shootings in the United States has prompted lawmakers to take a closer look at gun control laws.
President Barack Obama has put forward a plan to reduce gun violence that includes background checks for all gun sales. In a statement in January, the White House said “studies estimate that nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers who are exempt” from background checks.
Analysts have mixed opinions on whether an expansion of the law would help curb gun violence.
Jim Kessler is the co-founder of Third Way, a Washington-based policy group. Speaking on a radio program, he said the law allowing private gun sales has backfired.
“It has really become a loophole in the law that has allowed a lot of things to occur that probably were not anticipated when the law was passed,” Kessler said. “Closing that, in my view, would be a significant move that could really go a long way towards reducing crime in the country and could help prosecute a lot of other federal gun crimes.”
Harry Wilson is director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College and the author of “Guns, Gun Control, and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Fire Arms.” He said on the same radio show that some gun owners oppose universal background checks because they fear it would lead to a national gun registration program.
“The gun registry is what frightens a lot of people because then we start down the slippery slope.” said Wilson. “Now the government knows who owns guns. This is in the minds of some people the first step toward confiscation of firearms in the United States. So, there is that fear.”
That fear is unfounded, said Kessler. “It is not hard to do universal background checks and not have any type of registry. You just do the checks through gun stores,” he said. “The gun store keeps the record just as any other record. That’s all that would be done. There would be no national registry.”
But Wilson sees another problem with background checks. He said such checks would close the so-called loophole that allows for the private sale of weapons at gun shows. And this, he said, would not necessarily reduce crime.
“Criminals get their firearms generally through relatives, through friends and very often through straw purchasers – people who will buy the gun, who legally can purchase the gun, and then either give it to or sell it to someone who cannot,” Wilson said.
Kessler acknowledges that violent criminals do not necessarily go to gun shows, but he said they may rely on traffickers who do.
“There is actually a massive web of gun trafficking in this country that gets guns from the legal market to illegal market, and the private sale is the lubricant that allows it to occur, including gun shows, ” he said.
A poll released by Quinnipiac University in February said 92 percent of American voters supported universal background checks on gun purchases. But, it is a proposal that has drawn sharp criticism from the National Rifle Association.
”Proposing more gun laws while failing to enforce the thousands we already have is not a serious solution for reducing crime,” Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, told a Senate committee in January, adding that there are other ways to reduce crime.
Despite the political strength of the NRA, recent mass shootings could be a turning point in the debate.
Former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords also spoke at the same January committee hearing as LaPierre. She urged lawmakers to be “bold,” and “courageous” and pass tighter gun control laws. Giffords was shot in the brain during a 2011 attack. Her assailant, who showed signs of mental illness for years, purchased his gun at a local store.