How Well Do Background Checks Work and How Might They Change Under New Laws?

The Senate prepared to wrangle over gun control legislation, while supporters of new restrictions tried to step up the pressure. Judy Woodruff gets debate between Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson and Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation over a legislative sticking point: background checks.

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    The United States Senate moved closer today to a showdown over gun legislation. At the same time, supporters of new restrictions from the White House on down tried to step up the pressure.

    Today, it was Vice President Joe Biden leading the charge for new gun control laws.


    We have an obligation to try. We know, if we do the things we are talking about, we will all save lives. You have all seen the urgency of this issue. And you know what we have to do.


    He was joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and law enforcement officers from around the country. And family members of the school shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut, were on Capitol Hill appealing to lawmakers, the goal, pressuring Congress to act on gun legislation in the face of rising opposition from the National Rifle Association.

    The focus, especially in the Senate, has turned to a Democratic bill expanding the federal background check requirement to nearly all gun purchases. President Obama pressed the issue at a speech in Connecticut last night.


    And I'm asking everyone listening today, find out where your member of Congress stands on this. If they're not part of the 90 percent of Americans who agree on background checks, then ask them, why not?


    The current federal system enacted as part of the Brady Act in 1993 was formally launched in 1998. It requires prospective gun buyers to fill out a six-page form for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

    Before the sale can be completed, the gun dealer must then call the FBI or other designated agencies to ensure the customer is eligible to purchase a firearm. Among the criteria that would make someone ineligible: having a criminal record, specifically felony convictions or violent misdemeanors, such as domestic abuse; being deemed mentally ill by a court; or involuntarily committed to a mental health facility; or being in the United States illegally.

    But the law applies only to federally licensed dealers. Under the so-called gun show loophole, no records are required for private gun sales. And it's a longstanding point of debate as to just how many guns are sold that way.

    Whatever the figure, prospects for action in the Senate remained uncertain. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell joined today with 13 Republicans who have vowed to block a vote on the Democrats' bill unless it's changed.


    Yes, the particular bill that the majority leader has indicated he may call up is one that came out of the Judiciary Committee on a partisan vote. It clearly had no bipartisan support in committee, and that was my view on that.


    On the other hand, five Senate Republicans, including Georgia's Johnny Isakson, say they want a vote.


    The instant background check law in Georgia, I was a part of in 1995 when it passed. The issue on instant background checks — on background checks now is how far they go and whether or not they violate rights to privacy in terms of mental health.


    Meanwhile, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey are still trying to work out a compromise bill. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid went to the Senate floor with the photo of a picket fence with 26 slats, one for each victim in Newtown, and he insisted there's no going back.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.:

    We have a responsibility to safeguard these little kids. And unless we do something more than what is the law today, we have failed.


    Later, Reid announced he will try to force an initial vote Thursday. It remains unclear if he can get 60, the number needed to proceed.

    We look more closely at the questions surrounding the way background checks work now and what effect changing the law may have.

    Jim Johnson is the Baltimore County police chief. He's chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. He met with Vice President Biden at the White House today. And Lawrence Keane, he's senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It's the trade association for the firearms industry.

    And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

    Chief Johnson, let me start with you. How well does the current background check system work?

  • POLICE CHIEF JIM JOHNSON, Baltimore County, Md.:

    Well, certainly, we know across America, nearly 40 percent of all guns that are transferred, nearly 6.6 million, are done outside of licensed federal dealers.

    We know when a buyer goes to a licensed federal dealer, it does work. There's many reputable gun shops all across America, nearly 58,000 that stop these guns from getting in the hands of bad people. Nearly two million guns were stopped from being purchased through that system.


    But you're saying it misses a lot of guns for sale.


    It certainly does, nearly 40 percent. And we have case after case all across America where these guns were purchased at gun shows and the penny saver ads and over the Internet, where they get in the hands of people who shouldn't have them.


    Lawrence Keane, how do you see how well the current system works?

  • LAWRENCE KEANE, National Shooting Sports Foundation:

    Well, actually, we think the current system is broken, and far too many records of people who are prohibited by law from being able to purchase or possess a firearm aren't in the NICS system.

    So we think that the focus should be on fixing NICS and getting the records into the system that aren't in there now. That's why the National Shooting Sports Foundation is launching a program to work with the states to build coalitions in the states where the records aren't being put into the system to fix NICS. We think that's where the focus should be.


    So when you are saying records are not getting into the system, what's falling down? What isn't happening that should be happening?


    Well, records of people that are, for example, adjudicated as mentally defective or were involuntarily committed to mental hospitals are not being put into the system.

    For example, Massachusetts put in one record, Rhode Island, no records. So there was a study recently done by the General Accounting Office that shows that how the states — about half of the states are really failing to get their records into the system, and it's not just mental health records, records on restraining orders, et cetera, other records that should be in the system that document who's a prohibited person.

    The NICS database is only as good as the records that are in it. And if the records aren't getting put in because states need to change privacy laws, that's what we think needs to be done. We think the Congress needs to use a carrot-and-stick approach and condition federal funds going back to the states to require them to get the records into the system or they don't get the federal grant fund.


    We're using the term NICS database. That is the name of the background check system.

    What about the solution he's describing, that you just need states to comply, to do what they're supposed to do?


    That's been great improvement in the entry of data into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, great improvement. More needs to be done.

    But we know, as you look at the president's plan and you look at the work of many elected officials who worked very hard on this, you listen to the vice president and the president on this matter, we know that entering more information and certainly doing a background check will save Americans' lives.

    I'm a sportsman. I'm a shooter. I'm a hunter. I relate to this gentleman that I'm talking to tonight. And I would ask hid organization, his membership, don't we all want a background check? This is something simple we can do to save lives.


    But you're saying it's not just putting more of the records — filling out the records that are there. You're saying there needs to be more gun sales that are required to go through a background check.


    Just adding information into the NICS system is not going to make a great difference. We need a background check nationwide. Maryland has a background check, for example, for regulated firearms.

    But if you don't like Maryland's laws, go to another state and just acquire it. This is a case where we need a national system in place.


    In other words, everybody who buys a gun.


    Yes, ma'am.


    Lawrence Keane?


    Well, it's not correct that you can simply go across state lines and buy a gun. For example, you can't buy handguns across state lines. That's currently prohibited by federal law.

    We think that — the problem we have with the proposals for so-called universal background checks from the industry point of view is it places the burden on small mom-and-pop federally licensed firearms retailers, small businesses, to perform a government function, and then for which they are required to incur the cost of keeping the records.

    They are then exposed to potential license revocation if there's a mistake in those records or to be dragged into lawsuits, liability lawsuits, product liability claims and such. And we think that to put the burden on small mom-and-pop businesses to do these background checks to perform the government function is wrong. And we can't support placing that burden on retailers.

    And, in fact, recent surveys show that 86 percent of federally licensed retailers in the United States are opposed to the proposals for universal background checks, precisely because of these reasons.


    So he's saying that there are a number of sales that are handled by smaller gun shops that shouldn't be required to register.


    Well, I would like to correct something Mr. Keane had stated. And I respectfully disagree.

    Many people do acquire their guns outside of states that have strong regulations. In fact, we know in Maryland that only 30 percent of the guns that are used in crimes of violence were acquired outside the state. And I can show you case after case where people go to gun shows and then bring them back into the state.

    I don't think this is going to be an inconvenience on gun shops. Frankly, nearly 92 percent of all these gun transaction NICS checks can be done in less than three minutes. And, frankly, if I owned a gun shop, I would want those customers coming in. Perhaps they will pick up targets, holsters or other apparatus for shooting while they're there.


    But he's saying it's inconvenient, it's going to put people out of business.


    I disagree completely.

    I think that is not going to happen. Frankly, 58,000, I think you will see a growth in the amount of licensed federal dealers that do this work. And, frankly, you don't have to think just about gun shops. There will be other industries that will pop up to deal with these background checks as well.


    Lawrence Keane, do you have a response?


    Well, I would agree with the chief that there are criminals who go across lines to illegally obtain firearms across state lines. And those same criminals are not going to go through background checks.

    So the burden is placed on retailers to perform a government function for which they could lose their license and their livelihood through a license revocation or they can be dragged into lawsuits, which is why 86 percent of retailers are opposed to this.

    That's not just the small mom-and-pops. That includes large corporate retailers like Wal-Mart, Cabela's, Dick's, and others.


    All right. All right, what about that point?


    What I would say to that is that career criminals will still try to acquire their guns illegally. But law-abiding citizens today that are selling nearly 6.6 million of these guns will abide by the law.

    If you create a universal background check system that applies across this great nation, if I'm a good upstanding citizen, I want a background check. I don't want my gun getting in the hands of somebody who is going to use that thing illegally. And, frankly, good law-abiding citizens will demand a background check be done. They will go to a licensed dealer.

    Today, they don't need to do it.


    It's not clear yet, Mr. Keane and Chief Johnson, what is emerging in the form of a possible compromise in the Congress, but it looks at this point as if it's something perhaps short of a universal check or a universal system, that it would — we heard — we know that Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has been involved in these conversations, said this afternoon that gun show loopholes, Internet sales loopholes will be closed, but he didn't make it sound broader than that.

    If that's what they're doing, Lawrence Keane, what would the reaction be from your organization?


    Well, I'm not going to speculate on what the proposal is. I would need to see the legislative text to make a decision.

    Federally licensed firearms retailers, the folks that my organization represents, already do background checks at gun shows. So, for the industry, we already do the background checks at gun shows. I think there's a lot of misconception and misinformation about the so-called gun show loophole.

    The Department of Justice has done surveys of prison inmates incarcerated for firearms-related offenses, and asked them where they obtained their firearm, and less than one percent said they got them at a gun show. So let's see the proposal, let's see the details. And we'd be happy to take a look at the senator's proposal.


    Chief Johnson, if it's something less than universal background check, would that satisfy what you're looking for?


    A universal background check will definitely make Americans safer.

    The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence and many police leaders all across America, the collective wisdom of tens of thousands of police leaders, we're calling for a bill, we're calling for action that doesn't create a masquerade national background check.

    And certainly we believe — and we stand next to 90 percent of Americans, 74 percent of NRA members, calling for a universal national background check. I wish we all could just get in a room and agree to one point. So many of us across this great nation want this. Why can't we make this happen?


    You want to respond, Mr. Keane?


    Well, actually, a recent survey of police officers indicate that 85 percent of police officers, rank-and-file police officers don't believe that the president's gun control proposals are going to do anything to advance safety.

    So there isn't even disagreement within the law enforcement community. We think there's certainly a lot of room for building coalitions, for coming together to try and make our communities safer. Clearly, reasonable minds can disagree about how you achieve that. We think the focus needs to be on preventing unauthorized access, by encouraging individuals who own firearms like Ms. Lanza, for example, to have locked those firearms up.

    The safe was in her son's room, and he had access to the combination. It was essentially his safe. She failed her responsibilities as a gun owner to keep those firearms secured and locked up and away from her son, who she knew to have serious mental health issues. We think there's sadly not a sufficient discussion going on in Washington right now about addressing the failures of the mental health system.


    Well, the …


    The commonality of the last several horrific shootings, we believe, is the mental health of the shooter.

    And we think that's not being addressed, and that's an important part of this discussion.


    And those are issues that we want to continue to look at here tonight.

    The focus has been on the background checks. And we thank you both very much, Lawrence Keane and Chief Jim Johnson. Thank you.


    Thank you.


    Online, you can find a state-by-state look at efforts to expand and restrict gun laws.