By Mark Kelly
I’ve been on the road lately, and everywhere I go, I hear huge determination to curb gun violence and real excitement about a simple, really important first step we can take: closing the so-called gun show loophole and instituting one simple system for background checks.
But then I read the newspaper or watch TV, and I hear other voices — specifically, the leadership of the National Rifle Association — describing this proposed legislation in terms that are misleading at best. They’re calling on legislators to make it easier, instead of harder, for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to get guns.
You read that right. Not harder, easier. Which isn’t what the more than 74 percent of NRA members in this country who are law-abiding citizens and responsible gun owners, as Gabby and I are, and who support expanding background checks, believe.
Making the system of background checks fair and consistent isn’t hard to understand. If you don’t think there should be two different sets of rules, leveling the playing field and expanding the effective National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the way to go. For the same reasons we don’t make getting screened for bombs or weapons at the airport optional, or registering your car something you only have to do if you want to, having a giant loophole in the background check system just doesn’t make sense.
But it’s clear that for reasons of their own, the NRA leadership has decided to dig in and — against all evidence and common sense — preserve a system that makes it easier for criminals to get guns.
Here are the facts:
Criminals and the mentally ill do submit to background checks — and any effort to convince you otherwise is flat out wrong. We know roughly 1.7 million criminals and mentally ill people have been stopped from buying a gun by a background check since 1999. What we don’t know is how many of them got a gun anyway at a gun show or different private sale.
Criminals use the gun show and private sales loophole to get their guns, and then they use them to kill and injure. Eighty percent of criminals who committed a crime with a gun said they got their gun through a private transfer with no background check.
Background checks are easy and fast. When I bought a hunting rifle at a Walmart in November, my instant background check took less than five minutes; 91 percent of checks are instantaneous.
An extension of the current background check system cannot by law or by practice result in a registry of guns or gun owners. Such a registry is against the law, and the federal government does not even collect the records that would constitute a registry.
The reality is that closing the gun-show loophole and expanding a simple system that works will respect, not encroach, on our Second Amendment rights. Ninety-one percent of background checks are completed instantaneously and records are kept by the folks who run them, not by the government. And we’re not looking to limit private transfers — proposed legislation should and will take into account transfers between family members, for example, and the needs of citizens in rural locations.
The NRA leadership and others are right to identify some systematic challenges we face in expanding the NICS background system — like streamlining the records process, and prosecuting more of the criminals who do try to buy a gun — but they are flat out wrong to use those operational challenges as a reason to say no to a simple universal background check.
As a former astronaut, I’ve got a pretty seasoned perspective on operational challenges. When something breaks on the space shuttle, the crew doesn’t throw up their hands and decide to go to the golf course instead of the International Space Station. We roll up our sleeves and figure out how to make it work. That means having the perseverance to find solutions, to look closely at systems that aren’t working, so that we achieve new heights of accomplishments. And working on complicated solutions means having a straightforward grasp of the facts and a willingness to find common purpose with others, no matter how diverse the team is.
That’s the approach Gabby took to Congress, too, and it’s a quintessentially American approach we all ought to take as we work to protect the safety of our communities. Background checks protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, and they serve a patriotic purpose: making sure that we have one system for those who want to purchase a firearm, not two: one for those desperate to avoid detection and bent on violence, and one for the rest of us.
Capt. Mark Kelly served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years, flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and was the final commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. He is the co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a deranged gunman who also injured thirteen people were and killed six others at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona.
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