Questioning U.S. Gun Policies – Who is Representing Us Anyway?

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This week appears to be a critical week in the efforts to move forward with common sense gun policies.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s calls for a ban on assault weapons and larger capacity ammunition magazines have completely stalled.  While not the focus of this week’s blog, I would be remiss to report this news without taking a moment to express my deep frustration and confusion.   In particular, how is a ban on large capacity ammunition magazines completely off the table?  What happened to our outrage after the shooter in Sandy Hook killed innocent children and school personnel by firing 154 bullets in less than five minutes through the use of his 30-round clips?  How many lives could have been spared if he had to reload more frequently?

Let’s talk about the measures that are currently on the table – efforts to strengthen current background check requirements – and the policies that are influencing the lobbying against these efforts.  Supporters would like a universal background check and would like to close a loophole in current law that requires no such check for sales at gun shows or through private sellers.  As reported by NPR, the NRA has previously expressed support for expanding background checks but since the Newtown shootings, the organization has been staunchly opposed to the idea.  Other gun rights advocates have tried to find a bit of a more balanced approach by expressing they might be open to expanding background checks to private sellers and sales at gun shows, but are against keeping records of those sales because that could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and they fear what the government will do with that information.

To put into context the NRA and other gun advocates’ lobbying on the current efforts to expand background checks, let’s look more closely at some of their recent lobbying efforts.  According to the Center for American Progress, since the 1970s, and increasingly over the past decade, the NRA and others in the gun lobby, have pushed Congress to incrementally chip away at the federal government’s ability to enforce gun laws and protect the public from gun crime.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, is the Federal licensing body for firearms dealers. Among other duties, the ATF is responsible for protecting our communities from violent criminals, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, and ensuring that federally licensed firearms dealers comply with the laws and regulations that govern their businesses.  Since 1979, the ATF has been prohibited from creating a centralized database of gun sales records already in its possession.  One portion of these records includes the, on average, 1.3 million records ATF received each month from out-of-business dealers.  ATF is forced to keep these records in boxes in warehouses or on microfiche.  Because there is no centralized electronic database of gun records, when a gun is found at a crime scene, ATF agents must take days, or even weeks, sifting through hundreds of thousands of paper records, making numerous phone calls to the manufacturer or dealer that first sold the weapon, and relying on records kept by federally licensed firearms dealers in an attempt to identify the weapon’s owner.  Not surprisingly, this delay severely frustrates criminal investigations.  Why does the NRA and its allies want to thwart criminal investigations?  Further, considering there were more than 333,445 firearms traces in 2012, how much money could be saved by digitizing the records rather than paying for the man-hours required to complete the complicated and time-consuming paper search that would otherwise be completed with a few keystrokes and clicks of a mouse?

Thanks in no small part to the NRA’s lobbying efforts, since 2004, the FBI has been limited in their ability to maintain records that would help identify people who buy guns for another person who can’t legally purchase a gun, otherwise known as straw purchasers.  Currently, the FBI may only retain records of individuals who have successfully passed the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for 24 hours.  This limits law enforcement’s ability to recognize patterns that often suggest straw purchasing and gun trafficking.  The quick destruction of these records also removes ATF’s opportunity to proactively identify corrupt gun dealers who falsify their records to enable straw purchases.  Prior to 2004, the FBI retained these records for 90 days, allowing law enforcement the opportunity to look at the data for indications of criminal activity and to ensure the background check system is functioning properly and not being misused.  Why are the NRA and its allies thwarting the ability of federal agencies to be alerted to criminal activity before public safety has been jeopardized?

Perhaps most troubling is the NRA’s continued efforts to prevent any research into gun violence or into efforts to make guns and their use (and users) safer.  At the urging on the NRA, in 1996 Congress essentially silenced any federal public health research into firearms injuries by prohibiting the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from spending federal dollars on research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”  CDC funding for firearms injury and prevention research has fallen from an average of $2.5 million annually between 1993 and 1996, to around $100,000 annually in 2012.  In 2002, in a rare move of funding for research, Congress appropriated $1.5 million to develop a National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) designed to provide data on violent deaths in the United States in the hopes that the data will allow the development of strategies to reduce and prevent such deaths.  Unfortunately, the NVDRS is limited to 18 states and the NRA and their allies have pushed for restrictions limiting the data as it relates to gun deaths.  Again, why does the gun lobby want to limit publicly available information?  Why can’t we know what it takes to make guns safer?  This attitude is particularly troubling in light of a recent report by Bloomerberg indicating that gun deaths will likely exceed traffic fatalities by 2015.  The fall in traffic deaths has resulted from safer vehicles, restricted driving privileges for unsafe (young) drivers, seat-belt and other safety laws – all policies driven by our well researched information.  By contrast, the gun lobby’s successful push to limit up-to-date public health research into gun violence and gun-related injuries and deaths has resulted in  a dearth of information in this area and legislators and policymakers are left to guess how to best address these issues.

If you, too, think the time has passed for the NRA to be creating our national gun policy, I urge you to do something now.  The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is spearheading a sign-on letter in support of stronger laws to protect our children from gun violence.  Please consider signing on.  Or, go online, here, to send a letter to your representative – just fill in your name  and address and an email will be sent to your representatives expressing your desire for common sense gun safety laws.  You can also check out http://www.sandyhookpromise.org, a website created by members of the Newtown Connecticut community, together with parents of the victims at Sandy Hook to address gun violence.

Author: Christina Riehl, Senior Staff Attorney at CAI

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