The Right To Arm Buyers
The NRA’s pathetic excuses for opposing universal background checks.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Fourteen years ago, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told Congress the NRA supported “mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show.” Now, despite several recent mass shootings, the NRA opposes such background checks, not just at gun shows, but for any seller other than a federally licensed firearms dealer. Why does the NRA, which claims to represent only “law-abiding” Americans, oppose such a requirement? In the last two weeks, LaPierre and NRA President David Keene have offered multiple excuses. Here’s the list.
1. It’s a hassle. Two weeks ago, LaPierre told an audience of gun enthusiasts,
Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction—except those between criminals—will somehow make us safer. That means forcing law-abiding people to fork over excessive fees to exercise their rights. Forcing parents to fill out forms to leave a family heirloom to a loved one. Standing in line and filling out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork, just so a grandfather can give a grandson a Christmas gift.
Two days ago, on Fox News Sunday, LaPierre complained that under a universal check system, “If I want to sell you a shotgun or something like that … we'll have to go find a dealer or walk into a police station. Who's going to do the check? There's going to be fees. There's going to be paperwork. There's going to be law-abiding people caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Fees? According to online gun forums, the going rate for running a check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (known as NICS) at a dealer or public agency ranges from zero to $5 to $15 to $25. Paperwork? The check is electronic. NICS operators resolve more than 90 percent of cases immediately, and if the resolution is delayed more than three days, by law the sale can go through. Last Thursday, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Keene admitted the check “is not much of a burden on people” because it takes less than two minutes, and in the worst outlier cases 10 days. He also conceded that extending it to gun shows “would be relatively easy.”
2. It wouldn’t do much. LaPierre cites data suggesting that among state inmates imprisoned for crimes committed with handguns, only 1.7 percent bought their weapons at gun shows. Assume that’s accurate. In the last five years on record, firearms—overwhelmingly handguns—have killed 46,313 homicide victims in this country. If we had prevented 1.7 percent of those homicides, that’s 787 lives. Is that not worth the hassle?
3. Background checks don’t work, because they’re poorly enforced. Last Wednesday at a Senate hearing, LaPierre said the NRA opposes any extension of background checks because only a tiny minority of people flagged by NICS are prosecuted. “You're letting them go,” he protested. “The National Instant Check System, the way it's working now, is a failure, because this administration is not prosecuting the people that they catch.”
4. Background checks are dangerous, because they’re aggressively enforced. If checks are extended “to every hunter, to every family member, every relative,” LaPierre warned the senators, “Honest people are going to be entrapped into committing crimes they had no intention to commit.” And these people—having sold guns to convicted criminals against the law—would be pursued, according to LaPierre, by a “universal federal nightmare bureaucracy.” On Fox, LaPierre repeated this claim: “There's going to be abuse in terms of prosecutions.”
5. Dangerous people will evade the checks. “Homicidal maniacs, criminals, and the insane don't abide by the law,” LaPierre told the senators. Answering a question about background checks, he said, “The problem with gun laws is, criminals don't cooperate with them. The mentally ill don't cooperate with them.” That doesn’t square with what Keene said the next day: “The people who do get deterred, frankly, are the folks who have severe mental problems, if they’re in the system.” (Keene added that people under “a restraining order or a domestic abuse order” also “sometimes try to buy firearms at dealers” and are flagged by the system. Presumably those people would also submit to, and be flagged by, a gun-show check.) LaPierre’s claim also doesn’t square with government data indicating that from 1998 to 2011, the check system blocked 1.7 million gun transactions, mostly for criminal convictions.
6. Law-abiding people will evade the checks. Keene said background checks for private sales are pointless because somebody from Michigan told him that everyone there ignores the state law requiring them. “If you have a law that is either difficult or impossible to enforce or to get people to follow, all you do is … encourage contempt for the law,” said Keene. That’s an argument not only against gun laws, but against all the drug laws for which the NRA advocates tougher prosecution. It also contradicts the NRA’s constant refrain that gun laws disarm law-abiding people. Ultimately, it’s a claim that if gun sellers refuse to pay $5 for a two-minute check to make sure their buyers aren’t in a criminal database, lawmakers should yield to these scofflaws.
7. Background checks are a slippery slope to confiscation. “They'll turn this universal check on the law-abiding into a universal registry of law-abiding people,” LaPierre predicted on Fox. Keene said the NRA opposes “any kind of national gun registry system” because “that is a precursor, in many cases, to confiscation.” And even if the government doesn’t confiscate guns, Keene noted, the list of owners might be leaked or released to journalists and posted on the Internet, as happened recently in New York.
8. Background checks are big government. Regardless of the consequences, LaPierre told the senators, “I just don't think law-abiding people want every gun sale in the country to be under the thumb of the federal government.”
When you cut through the clutter of the gun-control debate, this is the easiest conclusion to draw: The NRA has no compelling argument against universal background checks. Checks don’t regulate what kind of firearms or ammo you can buy. All they do is keep guns out of the hands of criminals, abusers, and mentally ill people. That’s worth $5 and two minutes of your time. Pass the law.
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.