Opinion: Gun Background Checks

By Rhett Wilkinson       
With the fate of gun control as muddled as ever, the best hope for congressional compromise centers on the most popular policy move Washington could make: universal background checks. 

Among all the limits on gun ownership that Democrats have advanced since the December shooting in Newtown, Conn., background checks enjoy the most support.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll in April 2013 showed 91 percent of respondents in favor of “requiring background checks for all gun buyers.”

Enough of the Senate apparently doesn’t think it’s a good idea, though, with the U.S. Senate on April 17 defeating a plan to expand background checks on firearms sales—one amendment among a broad package of gun laws pushed by President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the aftermath of the school massacre.

Since background checks have stopped hundreds of thousands of prohibited purchasers, however, they certainly have shown to be, in some way, a sound method. However, it’s easy to sympathize with those arguing that federally expanded background checks are poor policy, aside from already increasing government power: among other trepidations, few prosecutions of denied gun buyers actually occur, they might be too broad, and criminals don’t submit to background checks.

With all the argument at the federal level, then, the states really should sort this out themselves, as the 10th Amendment of the Constitution suggests.


The non-profit Brady Center has argued that surveys of prisoners underestimate how many criminals get their guns from private sellers and gun shows, and the center has chronicled cases in which criminals bought guns from private sellers and used them to kill people.

The stories of criminals who bought guns that would be prevented by universal background checks are admittedly heartbreaking. In 2009, the Brady Center released a report entitled “No Check, No Gun,” disputing many of the cases made against universal background checks and chronicling instances in which they would have saved lives.

By 2009, the group argued, background checks had blocked more than 1.6 million prohibited purchasers in the United States from buying guns.


Few prosecutions of denied gun buyers actually occur. Created under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and implemented in 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System allows licensed gun sellers to check with the FBI, as required by law, before making a sale. While background checks have prevented tens of thousands of unlawful gun sales each year, opponents have said that the government doesn’t prosecute enough attempted buyers who are turned away. According to Justice Department statistics supplied by the office of Sen. John Cornyn, out of more than 76,000 denials in 2010, only 62 were referred for prosecution, and 13 resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts.

They might be too broad. Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said that, if a “transfer” of guns is defined too broadly, people with good intentions could unwittingly become criminals. “You worry about, in essence, a criminal justice trap where a lawful gun owner who wants to obey the law inadvertently runs afoul of the criminal law,” Calabrese told The Daily Caller. The Heritage Foundation has said it is wary of any bill that would ban loaning guns to friends at gun ranges or on hunting trips.

Criminals don’t submit to background checks. This argument sounds a bit echoic, but the National Rifle Association argues that most criminals don’t get their guns from stores, but on a black market. “My problem with background checks is, you’re never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks,” the NRA’s LaPierre said at the February hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Gun shows … are not a source of crime guns, anyway. It’s 1.7 percent.” The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, notes that this figure comes from Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who cites a 2004 survey of incarcerated gun-violence convicts about where they got their guns, in his new book “Reducing Gun Violence in America.” A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman said the figure is probably higher, as some “friends and family members” who give guns to criminals (forty percent of inmates surveyed said they obtained their guns this way) likely get them from gun shows in the first place.

…insert a Bishop instead

Congressman Rob Bishop has proven to be a strong advocate for the rights of states to resolve issues and form policy and laws, as outlined in the 10th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The founder of the 10th Amendment Task Force, Rep. Bishop has said the following of the principle of federalism—to observe states’ rights to work out issues:

“I’m convinced that federalism and the 10th Amendment is the solutions to our country’s problems and perhaps even the salvation of this country. When the Founding Fathers got together, they decided that the best way to preserve people’s individual rights and freedoms was to balance power out, so they did that… through separation of powers.

“But equally important to them was balancing power vertically between the national government and states. That’s federalism. Allow Congress to do those things that are only the core constitutional responsibilities, for which we were designed. Allow other issues to be done by the state and local governments, where they can provide creativity, efficiency and justice so it’s not one size fits all coming out of Washington.

“Take power out of Washington and give power to those who actually work in the state capitols of our states.”

It’s difficult to agree with Kentucky senator and filibusting crusader Rand Paul that families and friends of victims of the Newton shootings were used merely as “props.” I doubt the Obama administration forced them to D.C. to make their case. On any account, it sure would have been nice to see those individuals visiting their state capitol in Connecticut and surrounding states to make the plea, where these policies can be best implemented—and perhaps even passed.


Rhett Wilkinson is a senior at Utah State University studying journalism/communications and political science. A co-founder of Aggie BluePrint—USU’s first student magazine—he has worked as an intern in Congressional and Gubernatorial offices and as a correspondent for the Deseret News and Standard-Examiner.



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