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The Universal Background Check Bill Sitting on Mitch McConnell’s Desk, Explained

The bill passed with some bi-partisan support but is supported by a broad swathe of bipartisan voters, including gun owners.

In February of 2019, House Democrats passed legislation sponsored by Representative Mike Thompson of California that would mandate federal background checks on all gun purchases — including private gun sales. The bill, which passed by a whopping margin of 240 – 190, was met with some bipartisan support: eight Republicans voted to pass the bill as well. 

If passed by the Senate, the bill would require background checks on all gun sales, with the exception of temporarily using a gun for a hunting trip or a trip to the shooting range or giving a gun to a family member (like a gift to a spouse). Part of the bill — controversially — would include a provision that undocumented people who tried to buy guns would be reported to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Still, the legislation passed. But it has been collecting dust on Mitch McConnell’s desk for five months. 

The bill, if it were ever passed, would make up some of the most meaningful gun legislation that has passed since the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines ban in 1994, which expired in 2004. The new bill aims to close a loophole that only requires licensed dealers to run background checks on potential buyers of firearms, so if, under current law, someone is selling a gun at a gun show or over the Internet, they do not need to run a background check on the buyer. 

That the bill hasn’t yet been passed is a bit of a puzzle. Universal background checks is a policy that enjoys broad bipartisan support, even among those who might seem to not want them. According to a recent Public Policy Polling Survey, 83 percent of gun owners support background checks on all gun sales and 72 percent of National Rifle Association (NRA) members support such legislation. It’s confounding as to why the NRA has not yet gotten behind background checks as a piece of public policy. 

While background checks are not associated with drastic reductions in gun violence, they are associated with some reduction in gun violence, and are a logical first step in reducing gun violence from illegal gun sales more broadly. This is enough to do something when it comes to protecting human lives. Many see background checks as the first step to a gun licensing system, which would be a system where people have to apply for a gun license that they have to renew through aptitude tests every five years or so and be fingerprinted and interviewed by an FBI official with a full background check. Gun licensing is a major part of many 2020 candidates gun control platforms, including Senator Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, the latter of whose hometown was hit by a mass shooting from a white-supremacist earlier in August.

Meanwhile, as Mitch McConnell ignores the will of what a bipartisan voter base broadly wants, people continue to die. Forty thousand Americans die a year as a result of gun violence and 21 children die a day from gun violence. While a background check system wouldn’t end gun violence entirely, it would make it harder for people who want to do harm to others to buy guns from gun shows, online purchases, or gun stores. Following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, senators and citizens alike asked Mitch McConnell to call Congress back from its one-month recess to call a vote on the background checks bill. He has, so far, refused to help.  

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