Universal Background Checks in federal legislation?
Summary: Universal Background Checks and other gun policies are examined to determine their practicality, effectiveness, and appeal to the public. Through arguing that universal background checks should be passed as federal legislation, I conclude that they serve as an ideal common ground between progressive/conservative ideologies in the gun control debate.
Universal Background Checks and the Unified Stand Against Gun Violence
It is not unlikely to hear as an American that living in the United States is a great privilege. After all, the U.S certainly provides the resources to live a comfortable, prosperous life, where citizens are recognized to be free and capable of striving for their biggest dreams. It is a true melting pot, where various cultures and religions are able to practice freely without fear of censorship from the state. Additionally, social progressivism has allowed people of various ethnicities, sexualities, etc. to advance to the higher quality of life that they deserve as a U.S citizen. However, while the U.S does present the benefits of liberty, security, and opportunity, what is there to strive for when life itself is taken away? Out of all other developed nations, the United States has the highest rates of homicides/suicides, the majority of which are committed by firearms. To worsen these conditions further, isolation and economic turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented amount of gun violence, despite its seemingly complete omission from mainstream media headlines. Through all of my research and the main sources included within this report, I was able to see a familiar trend: gun violence is a major social issue in the United States and requires new and improved legislation in order to improve public welfare. Unfortunately, the main conflict in passing gun legislation lies in political polarization. Recent attempts by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to pass red flag laws and assault-weapon bans have been struck down in the Republican-controlled Senate, and the bills crafted by Republicans are unsatisfactory in the eyes of Democrats. Thus, I decided to structure my research around which specific policies are certain to garner the most bipartisan support, and how the implementation of these policies not only work to prevent further deaths from gun violence, but also contribute to the fix of the modern American political divide. To be more specific, I discovered the tremendous allure of universal background checks, which is a policy that would undoubtedly serve as the ideal common ground between gun-rights activists and gun-control activists. The institution of universal background checks will assist in taming political division because of its widespread appeal, benefit to the American public, and its potential precedent in amending outdated, ineffective legislation.
When addressing the possible solutions to a major social issue, it is imperative to prioritize our understanding of the social issue itself. As Joe Biden claimed recently, gun violence is an epidemic that plagues the nation. While often absent from the daily news cycle, it silently kills approximately 40,000 people per year in the United States, and has been on the rise in the last decade. While it takes nearly a year for the CDC to compile the exact data on gun violence in the United States, that 40,000 mark is predicted to have been hit in October of 2020. Additionally, 2019 marked the third consecutive year where more than 39,700 lives were lost from firearms. Two-thirds of these lives lost were from suicides (Can the Nation Find Common Ground in the Wake of Mass Shootings?).
Thus, as well as being effective in preventing shootings of deadly calibers, universal background checks also aid in preventing suicides by firearm. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Journal of General Medicine, both homicide and suicide rates tended to decrease in states that have universal background checks implemented for all gun purchases (Can the Nation Find Common Ground in the Wake of Mass Shootings?). The majority of suicides in the United States are caused by firearms, and many buyers have been able to pass simple psychological tests for a gun purchase without having their mental health questioned. Through more extensive screening of the buyer and thorough examination of mental health/criminal records, many buyers that plan to use firearms for self-harm would be denied through universal background checks. Ideally, these buyers would also be referred to mental health programs and institutions for psychological help. To add, with universal background checks passed into law, buyers planning to do self-harm or harm to others would be unable to purchase from private sellers without a background check, as well.
The call for universal background checks and other regulatory policies are obviously more aimed at homicide/mass shooting prevention, however, and fortunately, current data on the effectiveness of universal background checks appears very promising. According to the academic journal Mass Shootings, Legislative Responses, and Public Policy: An Endless Cycle of Inaction, it is estimated that approximately 80% of firearms used for criminal purposes have been obtained without a formal background check. As mentioned before, many of these guns are purchased from private sellers, who under the current law are not required to perform a background check on a potential buyer. Thus, implementing universal background checks nationwide would undoubtedly minimize crimes committed by firearms, requiring private sellers and gun shows to withhold guns from those who are ineligible. In states that already require background checks for all gun purchases, this is already becoming apparent.
While background checks do already exist for standard gun purchases, there are some fatal flaws within the enforcement and legislation itself that leads to its ineffectiveness in gun violence prevention. As a current example, many gun purchases in 2020 were completed without a sophisticated background check as a result of the FBI's outdated registry system. For some context, gun sales skyrocketed last year, which was deemed to be a result of the pandemic and fear of civil unrest from protests. In March and April alone last year, an estimated 6.6 million background checks were conducted, an unprecedented number in bimonthly gun sales. The FBI's system became easily overwhelmed by this massive influx of gun sales, and approximately 30,000 firearms were sold with a background check as a result. Even the sellers that performed background checks on buyers weren't nearly as comprehensive in screening as what is usually required under law (Has National Turmoil Blunted the Momentum for New Laws?). Mentioned specifically within the article, many gun sales were conducted without a screening of the buyer's criminal, mental health, and drug-use history. While poor enforcement in these background checks is obviously a major concern, the legislation and the record databases themselves aren't nearly as extensive as they should be. One system in particular, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has historically had flaws with maintaining important records, some of which could have prevented several shootings in the 90's and early 2000's. Overall, it is estimated that millions of records are still missing from the NICS that would disqualify buyers from making a gun purchase (Mass Shootings, Legislative Responses, and Public Policy: An Endless Cycle of Inaction). Usually, these records contain critical information about the person's criminal and mental health history, and can be immediately accessed at the point of sale. Additionally, some critical records are never legitimately reported to NICS, so some gun buyers can easily purchase a firearm after passing the instant background checks, even though they should be exempt from purchasing. With the institution of universal background checks, this flawed system would be amended and improved upon by including all necessary records that would be required for examination during all firearm purchases.
As mentioned earlier, universal background checks serve as the ideal gun policy to pass through America's polarized political climate. Out of all other gun policies, universal background checks are undoubtedly the most widely supported gun policy in the United States. It is a popular policy among both Democrats and Republicans in office, as well as with the general American public. According to Susan Ladika in her academic journal, Can the United States Reduce Gun Violence, various polls show that universal background checks are supported by 85% of the general American population. To put that into perspective, other gun-control policies such as red flag laws and assault-weapon bans are supported by around 50% of the public. The same source also referenced a Quinnipiac University poll, which found that 94% of voters wanted background checks for all gun buyers in 2019. Additionally, more than 75% of registered voters supported a federal gun licensing system. Interestingly, public perception of this policy underwent a dramatic shift in the last decade, rising tremendously in popularity in response to some of the worst mass shootings in American history. In Ladika's most recent article, Can the United States Reduce Gun Violence, she mentions a general study which found that two thirds of its respondents favored stricter gun laws, compared with 47 percent in 2015. In the aftermath of deadly shootings such as the incidents in Parkland and Las Vegas, it should come as no surprise that the general public is beginning to warm up to ideas of gun regulation.
The general public is not the only body in support of universal background checks. Despite the lack of physical legislation, both Democratic and Republican politicians have expressed interest in universal background checks. Democrats in the House of Representatives, for the most part, are the most active supporters of gun regulation. In the last couple of years, the House has seen a number of extensive policy proposals designed to regulate firearms, many of which are so progressive that they would hardly find success in the political spheres of the past. Assault-weapon bans and red flag laws were often considered too extreme when discussed during the twentieth century. Perhaps the most surprising shift, however, is that members of the Republican party, who have traditionally opposed legislation related to gun control, have warmed up to the idea of universal background checks. Previous Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed in 2019 that gun control measures would be 'front and center' after the Senate finished its summer recess. Additionally, some Republicans have even switched their views on assault-weapon bans, which they claim might infringe on the Second Amendment but are necessary for the public welfare.
With all of this being said, why have these policies failed to pass through the federal legislature? Unfortunately, much of this can be explained by traditional values that continue to be upheld, as well as relentless lobbying from gun-rights organizations (particularly the NRA). In the United States, there is no organization that financially incentivizes politicians as much as the National Rifle Association, which has always opposed policies related to gun legislation. Organizations such as the NRA, and gun-rights activists in general, usually base their opposition on constitutional infringement, specifically infringement on the second amendment in regard to gun bans. In response to red flag laws and universal background checks, they also often claim infringement on the right to due process. While the constitution is undoubtedly a sacred federal document that should be upheld, human lives are infinitely more valuable. Recent studies on red flag laws have already shown their effectiveness in preventing more than twenty shootings before they begin, and assault-weapon bans have shown promising results in other developed countries.
To demonstrate the widespread appeal for universal background checks even further, I personally conducted a survey that asked fifteen different participants whether they supported the implementation of the policy or not. To make the results more relevant to the project, I also asked the participants which political party they identified with (or tended towards). Out of the fifteen participants, I found that nine identified on the Democratic side and the other six on the Republican side. Out of the nine Democrats, all of them supported the implementation of universal background checks. Out of the six Republicans, five of them supported the policy. Although the sample size is too small to form a specific conclusion on the data, the results seemed to mirror the data found in the research. A potentially eye-opening observation of the study that wasn't included in the results, however, was that respondents that were older seemed to hesitate more before sharing their final answer. This could possibly relate to the fact that older generations align more with traditional values, whereas younger generations align with progressive values.
Through all of this research, it becomes easily apparent that through the teamwork of Democrats and Republicans in passing stricter gun legislation, the vision of a safer and more unified America will become a reality. As a result, the political sphere will become less polarized and more unified because of it. As stated by Schildkraut, the quality of life tends to be higher in places with lower rates of gun violence, and in places where universal background checks are already implemented to prevent further violence. Therefore, it is imperative that these policies be enforced nationwide: invaluable lives depend on it. Although gun control is a pressing contemporary issue, the result of passing this revolutionary legislation will be in unification.
Barry, Colleen, et al. "Public Support for Gun Violence Prevention Policies Among Gun Owners and Non-Gun Owners in 2017". EBSCOhost
Carr, Collin and Schildkraut, Jaclyn. "Mass Shootings, Legislative Responses, and Public Policy: An Endless Cycle of Inaction". EBSCOhost
Collier, Lorna. "Can Gun Violence In Schools Be Prevented?". CQ Researcher
Ladika, Susan. "Can the United States Reduce Gun Violence?". CQ Researcher
Ladika, Susan. "Has National Turmoil Blunted the Momentum for New Laws?". CQ Researcher
Ladika, Susan. "Can the Nation Find Common Ground in the Wake of Mass Shootings?". CQ Researcher
McGinty, Emma, et al. "Common Sense or Gun Control? Political Communication and News Media Framing of Firearm Sale Background Checks After Newtown". EBSCOhost