The president of the National Rifle Association argued Thursday that a universal background check system for gun buyers is both impracticable and unnecessary, but an effective instant check system that includes records of the adjudicated mentally ill would prevent potentially dangerous people — such as the gunman at Virginia Tech in 2007 — from getting their hands on firearms.
NRA President David Keene said less than 1 percent of criminals get their guns at gun shows and contested the oft-cited statistic that 40 percent of firearms transactions occur without a background check, saying that data comes from an outdated poll conducted nearly 20 years ago.
"We've had a debate over the so-called gun show loophole for years and ... the impression you get is that gun shows, they're just people buying guns and there are no background checks needed," Mr. Keene said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "That's not true. Over 90 percent of the firearms sold at gun shows are sold by licensed dealers. Everybody who buys those firearms has to undergo a background check."
But according to Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, universal background checks are crucial. The group says that in nine of 10 gun crimes, the gun is not used by the original purchaser and that the denial rate for people attempting to purchase guns has dropped to 1.53 percent despite a more effective background check system — an indication that felons and gun runners are, in fact, exploiting the private market.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said Thursday that Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence was tough and conceded that the issue will be an uphill battle.
"[B]ut I think particularly on background checks for both firearms and ammunition purchases, there is an irrefutable case because it's simply enforcing the law that people who are dangerous, people who are criminals, convicted felons, dangerous drug addicts or mentally ill or domestic abusers ought to be denied the opportunity to purchase guns or possess them," the former state attorney general said on CNN's "Starting Point."
But Mr. Keene said the NRA does not support universal background checks for firearms purchasers, pointing out that such a law in Michigan, for example, is largely ignored.
"If you have a law that is either difficult or impossible to enforce ... all you do is encourage contempt for the law," he said. "So what you're doing is putting a heavy burden on someone who's never done anything wrong to exercise their fundamental rights at the other end, so we're talking about a practical problem."
Mr. Keene did say, however, that the group is interested in patching up problems with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) so that more records of people who are adjudicated mentally ill can be added.
"Had the system in place in Virginia, which we advocated, had been in place earlier, the Virginia Tech shooter would not have been able to buy a firearm, because he had been adjudicated as having mental problems," he said. "We think the NICS system needs additional funding, needs to be straightened out so that it operates efficiently and it's cleaned up so there are fewer false positives. To take that system and simply throw millions of people into it as it exists today would be a serious error."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also cautioned against going too far with background checks.
"Do you do it for one father selling to a son or another relative? How do you cover everything? I think that's the issue," he said on "Starting Point." "And also, the extent to which you have private sales on Sunday between relatives and maybe you can't access the system all the time and as fast as you want to do it. But it's something that's going to get a good look, and it ought to have a good look, but expanding it, I'm not sure that we know where we'll go in that direction."
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