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Public Opinion May Support Expanded Gun Sale Background Checks

As part of a package of proposals aimed at preventing gun violence, President Obama is calling on Congress to pass legislation that strengthens the background check system on guns sales.

While the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federally licensed gun dealers to check a buyer’s name against the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System before selling a firearm, private sellers are exempt from this law.

Proponents of the president’s plan point to statistics from national surveys that estimate that 40 percent of gun sales in the U.S. are private transactions. They have argued that traveling gun shows offer a loophole for anyone who wants to get a gun without submitting to a background check.

David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, says there is no such thing as a “gun show loophole.”

“The impression is that at gun shows people buy guns and there are no background checks needed. That’s not true,” Keene said at a press briefing in January. “Over 90 percent of the guns sold at gun shows are sold by licensed dealers. Everyone who buys a firearm [there] has to undergo a background check.”

Keene said that only about 10 percent of sales at gun shows are private and thus don’t require the seller to check first for a criminal history.

Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 school shooting at Virginia Tech who now advocates for gun control measures with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, questions the logic of a private gun sale at a gun show. In the 2011 film “Living for 32,” Goddard goes undercover at gun shows across the country. Scenes in the film show him buying guns, at times without producing identification to the seller.

“What was private about that?” he told PBS NewsHour’s Kwame Holman. “I don’t think I should be able to walk into a gun show like that and walk out with a gun without at least getting a check.”

At a Congressional hearing last month and in subsequent interviews, Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, has suggested that universal background checks would be an inconvenience for some gun sales and ineffective in others.

“When it comes to the issue of background checks, let’s be honest, background checks will never be ‘universal’ because criminals will never submit to them,” LaPierre said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Goddard said the benefits to public safety outweigh any inconvenience.

“I would ask them to weigh the inconvenience of a five-minute background check to the six days I spent in the hospital to the months of physical therapy that I had to endure — and I’m still here,” he said. “For the families who lost someone that day, an inconvenience is not even the right word.”

Instead of changing the laws on background checks, the NRA advocates stronger prosecution of those denied firearms under the current background check system. NRA also has called for a national campaign to teach gun owners how to operate firearms safely.

Goddard said the NRA is on the wrong side of history.

“I think that the NRA administration is in a giant disconnect with their membership.” Goddard says. “It seems to be one area where a lot of Republicans are stepping forward and realizing that despite their NRA rating they can support this. They look at the poll numbers and realize nine out of 10 Americans support this, eight out of 10 gun owners, seven out of 10 NRA members themselves,” Goddard says.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will pass an expansion of background checks. In a national poll conducted in January, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research found broad support for implementing a policy that would require a background check system for all gun sales to make sure a purchase is not legally prohibited from having a gun.

The survey of about 2,700 respondents included non-gun owners, non-gun owners living with gun owners, gun owners and NRA members. It found that overall, 89 percent of Americans favor the proposal.

*PBS NewsHour has been following the discussion about gun violence and gun control policy as it unfolds across the nation and in Washington. Follow all of the stories on our special reports page, The Gun Debate*.

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