Proactive Gun Safety Agenda
In the wake of recent mass shootings that have occurred everywhere from country music festivals to churches to schools, many Americans are wondering what actions the 115th Congress can take to reduce the gun violence that kills 96 Americans every day.
Strengthening the Background Check System
Requiring background checks for all gun sales
Requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales must be the foundation of any comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy. But under current federal law, criminal background checks are only required for sales conducted by licensed dealers. This makes it easy for convicted felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited purchasers to acquire guns – often from strangers met online or at gun shows – without a background check, no questions asked.
The background check system works: since its inception, it has blocked more than 3 million attempted purchases by people who are prohibited from having guns.1 But in order to make all Americans safer, federal law should require background checks for all gun sales.
It is a crime for convicted felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited purchasers to lie on the federal background check form in an attempt to purchase guns – but that doesn’t stop them from trying. In 2014, the FBI and state law enforcement agencies denied more than 125,000 gun sales to prohibited people via the background check system, and the majority of them were convicted felons. Three out of ten people who “lie and try” to buy a gun but are thwarted by a background check due to criminal convictions or indictments are re-arrested within five years. When someone “lies and tries” to illegally buy a gun it’s a dangerous warning sign, but law enforcement can’t intervene unless they know it has happened.
Federal law should require that state law enforcement officials are notified each time a person who is not allowed to have a gun attempts to purchase one and fails the background check. Doing so will provide law enforcement on the ground with the information they need to intervene before unlawful purchasers can get their hands on guns another way.
Federally licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks on all prospective gun buyers. But thanks to an NRA-backed loophole, a gun sale can proceed after three business days by default – even if background check operators have not yet confirmed that the buyer is allowed to have a gun. It was this loophole, known as a “default proceed,” that allowed a shooter to purchase the gun he used to murder nine people in 2015 at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church.
FBI data show that the Charleston Loophole resulted in gun sales to nearly 19,000 prohibited possessors between 2013 and 20172, and both the FBI and the Department of Justice have recommended extending the three-day time period for operators to complete background checks.
In the small minority of cases where a background check can’t be completed within minutes, operators already continue to research the gun buyer. Federal law should require definitive results before completing any sale.
Nearly all terrorism-related incidents in the United States involve guns. In one of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, a man who had twice been placed on a terrorist watch list and who had been investigated by the FBI as a suspected terrorist opened fire at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016 and killed 49 people. But under current law, the federal government cannot block suspected terrorists, including those on terrorist watch lists, from purchasing guns.
Between February 2004 and December 2014, guns were legally purchased more than 2,000 times by people on terrorist watch lists – because the FBI had no authority to block those sales3. And terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have repeatedly told followers to take advantage of lax US gun laws to get armed and kill Americans.
Congress should close this “terror gap” by enabling the federal government to step in and stop the sale of guns to suspected terrorists.
When a person is in crisis, loved ones and law enforcement are often the first to see signs that they pose a threat. According to a nationwide study of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, in at least 42% of instances attackers displayed documented warning signs before the shooting4. That was certainly the case in both the Isla Vista, California shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara in May 2014 and the Parkland, Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 that left 17 people dead.
Red Flag Laws are a crucial tool that allow family members and law enforcement to intervene when red flags are present to remove guns from potentially dangerous situations. Under a Red Flag Law, immediate family members or law enforcement can petition a court for an Extreme Risk Protection Order, and if the court finds clear evidence that a person poses a danger to self or others with a firearm, they will be temporarily prohibited from having guns and required to turn over any guns while the order is in effect. Laws like this already exist in nine states and are pending in dozens of others, and the data show they work. A 2017 study of Connecticut’s Red Flag Law found that the law has already averted an estimated 72 or more suicides5. Red Flag Laws should be passed by every state—and by Congress.
Domestic Violence Prevention
Guns and domestic violence are a deadly – and in the United States, all too common – combination. The majority of fatal domestic violence is committed with guns6. In fact, an Everytown analysis of every mass shooting between 2009 and 2016 found that more than half were committed by intimate partners or family members of the victims.7
The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed8, but despite the staggering statistics it’s all too easy for many domestic abusers to obtain guns. Prohibiting abusive dating partners and stalkers from having guns, requiring background checks on all gun sales, and getting complete domestic violence records into the system would help keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and save lives.
Traffickers take advantage of our nation’s porous gun laws by buying guns from lawful owners and transferring them to felons and other prohibited possessors. There are different ways traffickers can obtain guns – including bypassing background checks in unlicensed sales and making straw purchases from lax or corrupt gun dealers – but there are key opportunities to shut down these channels.
States with strong gun laws have been able to successfully deter diversion of guns into the illegal market, while states without those laws are the top suppliers of guns recovered in out-of-state crimes. Until Congress acts to crack down on trafficking nationwide, states with strong gun laws will continue to be victimized with guns trafficked in from neighboring states with weaker laws.
1. Everytown for Gun Safety. (2016). “Gun Violence by the Numbers.” Available at https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/#foot_note_7 ↩
3. GAO. (2015). “Update on Firearm and Explosives Background Checks involving Terrorist Watchlist Records.” Available here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B07UaTb0V7VUWmNBLVRGS2dIRlk/view↩
4. Everytown for Gun Safety. (2017). “Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016”, available at https://everytownresearch.org/reports/mass-shootings-analysis/↩
5. Swanson JW, Norko M, Lin H, Alanis-Hirsch K, Frisman L, Baranoski M, Easter M, Robertson AG, Swartz M, and Bonnie RJ. Implementation and effectiveness of Connecticut’s risk-based gun removal law: does it prevent suicides? Law and Contemporary Problems. 2017; 80: 179-208.↩
6. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Supplementary Homicide Report, 2010-2014.↩
7. Everytown for Gun Safety. (2017). “Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016”, available at https://everytownresearch.org/reports/mass-shootings-analysis/↩
8. Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J. et al. (2003). Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: Results from a multisite case control study. American journal of public health, 93(7), 1089-1097.↩