Since the Brady Bill was enacted, licensed firearms dealers have had to conduct a background check prior to going through with a sale. However, loopholes in the law allow for prospective purchasers to avoid a background check. Mandating universal background checks for all firearm purchases is widely considered to be an effective way of reducing gun violence. According to a recent poll, support for universal background checks reached 97 percent.
Notorious for tweeting contradictory information and walking back promises, President Donald Trump has pledged to pursue “comprehensive background checks with an emphasis on mental health,” among other measures such as introducing armed guards and arming teachers.
However, it is important to note that comprehensive and universal are very different things. Comprehensive means improving the background check system as is, universal means expanding the system to include all transactions; Trump is apparently supportive of only the former.
In 2013, the FBI conducted more than 21 million background checks. Given the massive scale of the system, there are always going to be errors as those records get misplaced or neglected. That said, these errors are minimal. An audit released in 2016 by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General found that, in a sample of denied transactions, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) had made the correct decision 99.8 percent of the time.
What’s the catch?
Current federal law does not require states to submit mental health information to NICS; participation is voluntary. Privacy concerns are frequently cited as the main reason states do not provide complete mental health records to the FBI. Mental health records provided to the NICS are likely significantly underrepresented. As a result, there is some concern a background check would not find a person ineligible to possess a firearm due to mental illness.
According to a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, there were 7.8 million active-warrant records in state warrant databases, but only 2.1 million records in the NICS database. Trump has expressed a willingness to include these people in the background check system.
In January 2008, President George Bush signed into law the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, which provides financial incentives for states to submit NICS information of people who are mentally ill and thus may be prohibited from purchasing a firearm. However, many states turned down the offer, again citing privacy concerns—though four states just changed their minds.
The inclusion of the mentally ill as part of the background check system has been a longstanding goal of the National Rifle Association (NRA), in place of applying a background check to all purchases. Yet when President Barrack Obama tried to do just this, they opposed it.
In January 2013, Obama announced new Executive Orders on gun control. Among them was the inclusion of information from the Social Security Administration (SSA) into the background check system. This order made it mandatory for the SSA to release information about mentally ill recipients of Social Security benefits. This information would then be included in background checks, essentially prohibiting people with mental illnesses from buying guns.
Yet in a rare occurrence, both the NRA and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed this. The ACLU said the rule “advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities… are violent.”
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than five percent of all gun-related killings in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.
In February 2017, Trump rescinded the rule before it could go into effect. Gun control groups have lambasted him for making it easier for the mentally ill to get guns, though he has since reconsidered improving the background check system with an emphasis on mental health.
However, the near total consensus for universal background checks suggest Americans believe this to be a more prudent start to reducing gun violence in the U.S. as its popularity far surpasses any other suggestion.
The latest mass shooting in Parkland, Florida will likely continue to further discussion on the subject until legislative change is brought about—though whether legislative change of this nature will prove substantive remains to be seen.