THE BLOG

It's Time to Emphasize Pragmatic and Achievable Gun Law Reform

12/21/2012 12:15 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2013

If today is a typical day in America, 34 people -- men, women, and children -- will be killed with a gun. Countless more will be wounded. As the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, I don't enjoy the luxury of ideological debate -- whether guns in our society are "good" or "bad," or arguing the constitutional parameters of "a well regulated Militia." My concern, when I wake up every morning and when I put my head down on my pillow at night, is that none of my residents become part of that daily 34 person national tragedy. My hope, my prayer, is that Friday's horrific shooting in Newtown might convince others to share this sense of pragmatic urgency.

Some of this fight to keep Newark's neighborhoods safe is within my control. My administration has poured unprecedented time, energy, and share of city resources into policing and crime prevention. We have engaged in focused policing, applied new management and organizational structures, are building a hybrid ceasefire model blending Chicago and Boston approaches, and employed advanced technologies such as acoustic gunshot detection. We have sought to address the many socio-economic causes of crime, from creating New Jersey's first city office of ex-offender reentry to a significant focus on Newark economic growth to create more opportunity for the underemployed in our local workforce. We have seen progress in driving down crime, including drops in shootings and gun murders since I entered office in 2006, but when it comes to guns, we can't adequately inhibit their flow into Newark, and we don't have the authority to reach the spigot. We must look outward to our state, other states, and to the federal government for any hope of serious progress.

There is no shortage of sensible reforms to pursue: We should immediately restore a modified version of the Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 2004, which included a ban on high capacity magazines. We should pursue one-handgun a month restrictions, which will allow law abiding gun owners to purchase up to a dozen handguns a year, but will significantly hamper gun traffickers due to the mechanics and economics of straw purchasing (having another buy guns on one's behalf). We must empower the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to do its job. BATFE has been without a permanent director for over six years, which is representative of Congress' obstructive treatment of the agency. There should be no more excuses. The time is now to have an honest conversation on these topics, and work tirelessly to win the necessary support to make them happen.

But allow me to set the floor. As President Obama mentioned in his powerful remarks on Monday afternoon, many reforms have significant support from the public, and even from gun owners. Fortunately, several of these widely agreed upon measures are among the highest impact reforms. The only reason these wouldn't happen is because of backroom dealing and lobby opposition, and we simply cannot allow that given what is at stake. While admittedly none of the following would have likely stopped Friday's tragedy, and we must address more closely related problems such as reforms to our broader mental health practices, any one of the below would save thousands of Americans from a similar violent end.

1.) Make background checks universal

There are fundamentally two ways to buy guns in this country: through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), such as a gun store, or through a private sale, which includes gun shows, many internet transactions, and private owners who wish to sell their guns. Federal law mandates that any purchase made from an FFL include a background check of the purchaser under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Federal law, however, does not require NICS checks for private sales, allowing for an estimated 40% of all sales nationally to circumvent any background checks.

Even with criminals disproportionately seeking out private sale opportunities to avoid background checks -- a DOJ survey concluded that 80% of inmates obtained their crime guns through private transfers -- there were still 78,211 instances of NICS identifying and denying prohibited purchasers from buying one or more guns from an FFL in 2011.

And those 78,211 instances matter. For example, one in every two women killed with a gun is killed by an intimate partner. However, in states which require private sales to be subject to background checks, this number drops by 40 percent. This is in part because many with a history of domestic violence, even a misdemeanor, are identified as prohibited purchasers in the NICS system.

The idea here is quite simple and reasonable: every individual who wants to buy a gun in this country should have to undergo a comprehensive background check to ensure that they are not a criminal, mentally ill, or a member of another prohibited purchaser category. Note that contrary to the claims of many, these checks are not cumbersome or inefficient - last year, background check calls were answered in an average of 6.9 seconds and 91 percent immediately resulted in a proceed or deny order.

A poll conducted earlier this year by a Republican pollster found that 82 percent of U.S. gun owners -- including 74% of NRA members -- agree that we should implement background checks for all sales. These gun owners don't want guns in the wrong hands for the same reasons as non-gun owners -- they are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who care about the safety of family, friends and community -- and they know their rights are made more secure by a sensible regulatory regime.

Existing law defines, quite reasonably, who should and should not be able to buy a gun. Let's actually put ourselves in a position to enforce these basic standards by passing the Fix Gun Checks Act (H.R. 1781/S. 436), which is pending in Congress.

2.) Improve mental health and other prohibited purchaser sharing with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System

Providing for all sales to be screened for prohibited purchasers through NICS takes us a long way towards keeping guns only in the hands of the law abiding, mentally stable people who should be allowed to purchase them. The next step is ensuring that NICS has the mental health data -- documentation of whether an individual has been, for example, involuntarily committed -- it needs to make those determinations.

The Tenth Amendment restricts the federal government from compelling states to provide all necessary data, which has meant, for example, that 19 states have provided fewer than 100 records of individuals disqualified on mental health grounds since the implementation of NICS in the early 1990s. We can do a better job of inputting federal data into the system, and should start there, but the real gap exists because of several states' failure to provide their data.

The federal government has employed a carrot and stick approach to improve state participation, but the current incentives and penalties need to be strengthened. The Fix Gun Checks Act, mentioned above, will go some of the way in addressing this issue. The best solution, though, is for citizens in states that do not provide robust data to demand more of their state government (visit http://www.demandaplan.org/FatalGaps for an interactive map that will give you a sense of how comprehensively your state is reporting mental health prohibited purchasers).

A bipartisan poll released in January of 2010 revealed that 90% of gun owners supported addressing such data gaps. NRA leadership has actually shown glimmers of support for this issue, as recently as this morning's press conference, and should make it a real priority.

3.) Tighten anti-trafficking laws

With all legal sales now running through NICS, and NICS now filled with more data, we can turn to defeating trafficking tactics. There are several options available, but here are two examples:

First, we need to pass a law that makes gun trafficking a clear, substantial, and practically enforceable federal crime. Law enforcement currently uses federal provisions that prohibit engaging in the business of selling guns without a federal license, which, as recently noted by the bipartisan coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, carries the same punishment as for the trafficking of chicken or livestock. The impact has been that federal prosecutors do not prosecute these cases as often as they do many other significant crimes. While polling data for this specific question is not available, 99 percent of non-NRA member gun owners and 95% of NRA members have expressed support for punishing traffickers to the maximum extent of the law.

Second, one of the most common excuses provided by straw purchasers when questioned by authorities after a crime gun trace leads to them is that their gun was lost or stolen. While retailers are required to report lost and stolen guns, individuals are not. Requiring this reporting will provide an enforcement mechanism against those suspected of assisting traffickers. A 2009 bipartisan poll found that 78 percent of NRA members and 88 percent of non-NRA gun owners supported such a measure.

These reforms, aimed squarely at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and aligned with the interests and preferences of law abiding gun owners, should be passed immediately by Congress and, where appropriate or necessary, the states. Congress and state governments have no excuse not to act: The majority of NRA members and non-NRA member gun owners support these measures because they are sensible and in no way threaten Second Amendment rights. You wouldn't guess this from remarks made earlier today by NRA President Wayne LaPierre, whose underlying philosophy of a response to last week's shooting was "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Most gun owners propose that we do all we can to stop "bad guys" from getting guns in the first place. The plan set forth by the NRA this morning -- a woefully inadequate and misdirected response -- simply does not venture to do that, and through that omission, fails its membership.

These reforms alone will save thousands upon thousands of Americans, and joined with other reasonable reforms, they can truly turn the tide on gun violence in this country. We owe no less to communities like mine, communities like Newtown, and to the next American community that will, within 45 minutes of you reading this, lose a citizen to gun violence.

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