Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to run a background check on anyone who attempts to purchase a firearm. That’s good! But anyone who fails a background check can fairly easily purchase a gun from a private seller. That’s bad, and it’s what happened in this case.
“The background check was run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NIC system did work. He applied to get a gun. He was denied a gun,” John Wester, special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, said in a press conference.
Law enforcement sources told ABC that the alleged shooter failed the background check in January 2014 because he had been diagnosed as mentally ill and flagged as a “prohibited person.”
Private sellers are barred from selling firearms to someone they know is such a person, but they are not obligated to conduct a background check themselves or even ask the buyer if they’re legally allowed to purchase a gun.
So while something happened that should not have happened, by the letter of the law the seller did not commit a crime.
This so-called “gun show” loophole means person-to-person transactions, bequeathments, online marketplaces, and certain transactions at gun shows can legally happen without a federal background check, and they quite often do. A 2017 survey in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 22 percent of gun owners reported obtaining their most recent firearm within the previous two years without a background check.
Gun control advocates have been calling for lawmakers to close this loophole for years.
“Americans are tired of excuses: The time for Senate action on background checks is now, and Americans will not be fooled by a weak, ineffective legislative response.” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passed the buck, signalling that he’s waiting for the Trump administration to come out for background checks before advancing a bill to close the loophole.
That doesn’t seem likely given President Trump’s historic reticence to pass gun safety legislation and his comments after the shooting.
“For the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” Trump said. “So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem.”
What’s maddening is that this very case, in which a background check stopped a guy with a so-called “mental problem” from obtaining a weapon, shows that background checks might have stopped this from happening. But until this loophole is closed, pretty much anyone who wants one can get a gun.