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Fix gun-sale loopholes, don't deny they exist

When it comes to the debate over gun control, the pushback I often hear from Second Amendment advocates is that there is no problem to fix, no loopholes to be filled, only clueless anti-gun zealots to be dealt with. That includes me, apparently.

Well, there are problems and loopholes and that does not make me anti-gun.

The Second Amendment spells out a “right of the people to keep and bear arms.” The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that means the right to possess arms for individual self-defense, not just in connection with, “A well regulated Militia … necessary to the security of a free state.”

That’s the law of the land. Guns are a part of our history and our culture. The overwhelming majority of those who possess guns are law-abiding citizens who own guns for hunting and sport shooting.

As for protection, the data makes clear that the handgun you possess for self-defense is far more likely to kill you or a family member than an intruder. Still, it’s your right to own it.

But the court also recognizes that this is not an absolute right. Few would argue individuals have a right to bear a shoulder-fired missile launcher or possess an M-103 Tank, for example. A line must be drawn somewhere. Connecticut and a few other states draw the line at semiautomatic rifles, banning most of them as military assault weapons. The Supreme Court has turned back constitutional challenges to that and similar laws.

I think something like the Connecticut ban should be the federal standard. I also know many strongly disagree and, given political realities, such an assault weapons ban will not happen any time soon.

But you would think even gun enthusiasts would want adequate safeguards to try to keep dangerous individuals from buying guns. And, polls show, many do. Others, however, see any further restrictions as undermining the Second Amendment or contend there is no problem.

Well, there is.

Passed in 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federally licensed gun dealers to do a background check, using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, before completing a sale. In 9 out of 10 cases the checks are almost instantaneous. The law prohibits convicted felons, domestic abusers and individuals with documented dangerous behavior due to mental illness from purchasing a firearm.

But not everyone who sells a gun has to be licensed, only those “engaged in the business.” Private sellers, who make only “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms,” do not need a license. Buy a gun from them and there is no background check.

One popular spot for these unlicensed sales is gun shows and those with criminal records who cannot pass a background check know it. If you have a record of smacking around women, are you going to the licensed gun dealer or the private seller booth to buy your gun?

Another way to dodge background checks is Internet sales. Now it is true that when firearms are shipped through the mail across state lines via an online sale, the transaction is required to go through a licensed dealer, meaning a background check. But if the seller does not ship over state lines, or if the buyer just picks up the weapon, there is no background check.

The National Institute of Justice estimates that about 40 percent of gun sales occur through unlicensed sellers with no background checks, about 6.6 million gun sales annually. When researchers interviewed repeat-offender inmates in 13 states, all serving time for gun offenses, 96 percent said they got their guns from unlicensed sellers.

Solutions seem obvious enough. Make anyone planning to buy at a gun show undergo a background check by a licensed dealer first. And expand the existing background check system that now covers interstate transactions to require that all online purchases pass through a licensed dealer. In other words, universal background checks.

Other improvements should include ending the 72-hour rule. About 10 percent of background checks take longer, usually when red flags are raised that the federal authorities need to check out. If federal authorities don’t finish the job in 72 hours, the sale can go through. Research from the years 2010-2014 found about 16,000 gun sales that would have been blocked were completed due to this rule.

Extend the deadline to a week, or more. If someone is so anxious to buy a gun he can’t wait a week, that alone is a warning.

Finally, there is a need to plug the “terror gap.” Last year Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act. It would prohibit individuals on the Terror Watch List from buying guns, just like they can’t get on planes, while providing people who contend they were wrongly placed on the list a means to challenge the gun-purchase denial.

According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2004-2014 there were 2,233 instances where suspected terrorists attempted to purchase guns from licensed dealers and 2,043, 91 percent, succeeded.

It is long past the time to repair these gaping holes in firearms laws, common sense provisions that would make everyone safer.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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