by Matt Rosenberg December 18th, 2012
As public concern begins to crest after the latest U.S. mass murders involving high-capacity semi-automatic weapons, pressure is growing on Congress to take more decisive action to help prevent such tragedies in the future. Exactly one month before the heinous killings on December 14 of 26 school children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a 118-page study from the Congressional Research Service was released that is likely to play a large role in framing the accelerating debate. It reported the rates of U.S. murders and firearms murders have declined markedly in the last 18 years, even as the national stock of firearms held by citizens has grown by half or more. But at the same time, according to the policy research arm of Congress, data reporting failures have continued to undermine background checks of gun-buyers mandated under the Brady Act; while a large loophole remains in requirements for background checks; and a federal ban on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammo feeders which expired in 2004 still hasn’t been renewed.
Among the key statistical findings in the CRS report:
The CRS report also describes the limitations and results of the Brady Act and related follow-on legislation. Passed by Congress in 1993, by 1998 the Brady Act had resulted in implementation of a system requiring federal firearms licensees – namely, gun dealers or sellers who were defined as operating a business – to submit for screening by the federal government the personal identifying information of non-licensed gun purchasers.
Of 95.1 million background checks of gun buyers under the Brady Act between 1998 and 2009, 1.6 million, or almost 1.7 percent, resulted in a denial of the right of the would-be purchaser to own a gun.
Fifty-six percent of the denials that were issued occurred because the would-be gun buyer had a felony indictment or conviction; 14.7 percent of the denials were due to evidence of domestic violence, either a misdemeanor conviction or a restraining order; 6.3 percent resulted from evidence inducing the buyer was a fugitive; 4.8 percent were due to evidence of drug use or addiction; and 1.8 percent were issued because of a determination of mental illness or disability. Other categories accounted for the rest of the denials.
Under the Brady Act, Congress began funding grants through the new National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) to help states make more current and automated their records which might disqualify a purchaser, especially criminal histories. But appropriations for these grants to the states dwindled from $100 million in fiscal year 1995 down to $6 million in fiscal 2012. As well, there were broad gaps in reporting backgrounds of criminals, and individuals adjudicated as having mental illness.
After the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, a new grant program was launched by Congress to further strengthen electronic reporting and sharing of data on potentially ineligible gun buyers, with further grants to states through amendments to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Improvements had occurred by May 2010, particularly in reporting the names of individuals with mental illness. But even then, half of U.S. states were not reporting those individuals, or only a very small percentage. Further, total appropriations to states under the newer grant program in fiscal year 2012 were just $5 million compared to $46 million over the three previous years. Not included in the beefed-up background information reporting regime were individuals determined to be at risk of harm to themselves or others due to drug use or addiction.
The CRS report also notes a key loophole in the Brady Act is that firearms sellers not defined as running a related business, do not have to be licensed to sell by the federal government and therefore don’t have to submit for a background check the names of their buyers. Because some of these sellers do “private firearms transfers” by selling guns to members of the general public at trade shows, concerns have grown about this so-called “gun show loophole.” Measures to close the loophole have been introduced in the 106th through 112th (current) Congress, but not have been enacted into law.
A federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons passed in 1994 and expired as planned in 2004 but has not been renewed. It banned large-capacity ammunition feeding devices holding more than 10 rounds, and rifles with detachable magazines and two or more of five defining characteristics such as a pistol grip, telescoping stock, and others. Exempt from the ban were otherwise qualifying ammo feeding devices and weapons legally obtained before the ban; these could still be sold. A series of attempts were made by legislators to reinstate the ban or parts of it since its expiration; but none have succeeded.
In the meantime, the 112th Congress has seen attempts to:
State laws on firearms may not be weaker than any federal firearms laws in effect, but can be stronger. All states have or will have provisions under which they “must” or “may” permit legally eligible gun owners to carry concealed weapons for the purpose of self-defense. An effort by Illinois to ban concealed-carry rights was overturned last week by a U.S. appeals court. Illinois was the last state in the U.S. to attempt to maintain such a ban.