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How gun background checks work — and when they don’t

New information about the Texas shooter’s past behavior reveals he was able to bypass a patchwork of gun laws and purchase the weapon he used to kill 26 people on Sunday. William Brangham breaks down the complicated landscape of our nation’s gun laws.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now back to Sunday’s massacre in a Texas church.

    As we reported, the killer’s past behavior should have legally blocked him from purchasing the guns he used to kill 26 people.

    Our nation’s gun laws are a patchwork, varying from state to state, and requiring the diligence of many different agencies and officials.

    William Brangham is back with a explanation of this complicated legal landscape.

  • William Brangham:

    In the United States, the second amendment gives citizens broad rights to keep and bear arms. The Supreme Court has several times affirmed this fact.

    But there are some legal restrictions on who can purchase or keep guns. Under federal law, to buy a gun from a licensed dealer, you have to be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 to get handgun or 18 for a rifle or shotgun.

    Retailers also have to run your through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Federal and some state laws designate four main categories that restrict your ability to get a gun — committing a violent or gun-related crime, having a diagnosed mental illness, known drug or alcohol abuse, or crimes committed when you were a juvenile.

    These are all things that would show up in that background check. These restrictions might seem obvious, but not every state has these rules, and not every state enforces the laws in the same way.

    For example, in 23 states and Washington, D.C., you can’t have a gun if you have been convicted of a violent or gun-related crime. The killer in Texas, Devin Kelley, should have been blocked from buying a gun because he violently abused his wife and her toddler several years ago when he was in the Air Force.

    A 1996 federal law bars domestic abusers from buying guns, but, as we mentioned before, the Air Force didn’t report his record to other authorities.

    On the issue of mental illness, a majority of states and D.C. bar people with a history of mental problems from accessing firearms. But it’s by no means foolproof. The great majority of people suffering from mental illness are not violent.

    So, who determines who is a threat? Sometimes, an individual will be flagged by the legal system or by a mental health provider, but, often, reporting it to federal and state databases never happens.

    On the issue of drug abuse, if you’re known to authorities to abuse drugs or have been convicted of a drug-related crime, 28 states and Washington, D.C., will block your access to a firearm. The same goes for alcohol in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

    And with each of these restrictions, a handful of states only block people from having handguns, not shotguns or rifles.

    Of course, people can often bypass state and federal rules entirely simply by buying firearms from private sellers, often at gun shows. Those sales from one private citizen to another are largely exempt from any reporting rules.

    This is what’s known as the gun show loophole. It’s estimated that almost a quarter of all guns are bought this way, with no background checks at all.

    Another loophole, there is no federal system for removing firearms if a person later falls into one of these prohibited categories. So if you bought a gun legally, but then developed mental illness or commit a violent act or abuse drugs, it’s nearly impossible for authorities to take those guns back.

    So here’s a crucial question, do any of these laws actually make a difference in reducing gun deaths? Do they make us safer as a society?

    According to one analysis done by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — that’s the group associated with former Congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords — the answer is clearly yes.

    The center graded all 50 states from A through an F on how they enact and enforce gun laws and then compared those grades to actual gun deaths in each state. They conclude — quote — “States with stronger laws have fewer gun deaths per capita, while states with weaker laws have more gun deaths.”

    Many gun rights group take strong issue with this kind of analysis. They argue that fewer restrictions and more gun ownership is the way to better public safety.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

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