It's Time to Fix Our Nation's Broken Gun Background Check System

01/24/2011 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael R. Bloomberg Fmr. three-term mayor of New York City; Founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg LP

Today, I joined Martin Luther King III and survivors, family members and friends of the victims of the shootings in Tucson, Virginia Tech, and Columbine and other incidents of gun violence that happen every day but never make the headlines. We launched a national campaign urging Congress to take two simple but critical steps to fix our nation's broken background check system: 1) fulfill the letter of the historic 1968 gun law and ensure that all names of people prohibited from buying a gun are in the background check system; and 2) fulfill the intent of the historic 1968 gun law by subjecting every gun sale to a background check. Add your voice now at

Below are my remarks this morning as prepared:

"Good morning, and welcome to City Hall.

"We gather here this morning in the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, who saw wrong and tried to right it, and in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw hate and tried to heal it. Two giants in American history. Two fighters for peace and justice. Two champions of the poor and powerless. Two victims of gun violence.

"In the spring of 1968, in the span of two months, two of America's most inspiring leaders were shot and killed. Martin was 39. Bobby was 42. They had wives and young children. They had dreams for their future. They had dreams for their country.

"That was 43 years ago. Since then, we have made so much progress on so many of the causes they championed: securing civil rights, fighting poverty, advancing opportunity. But there is one major area where we have gone backwards: Gun violence. Since 1968, more than 400,000 Americans have been murdered with guns - about as many Americans as were killed in all of World War II.

"Today, I'm honored to be joined by Dr. King's son, Martin Luther King III. We are standing just steps away from where another public servant who was struck down by gunfire - Abraham Lincoln - lay in state after his assassination. Marin Luther King III knows the horror and heartbreak of gun violence. It has been part of his family's life for almost as long as he can remember.

"Unfortunately, he is far from alone. Also standing with us today are people from all over the country who have lost friends and family members to gun violence. Every day in America, 34 people are murdered with guns. 34. 34 yesterday, 34 today and 34 tomorrow. And in most cases, we never hear about them. They don't make the headlines. They are regular hard-working men and women. They are loving mothers and fathers. They are innocent children with their entire lives in front of them. And they are law enforcement officers who swear an oath to protect us.

"Since I've been mayor, nine members of the NYPD have been killed by gun-toting criminals. I've said before that the toughest part of my job happens on those terrible nights when I'm called to the hospital to meet with the family and break the news that will break their hearts. And I always say that if more legislators could just look into the faces of these families whose lives are changed forever, they'd begin to understand the terrible toll of gun violence on our country, and they would do something about it.

"Behind me, you see some of those faces. You see the face of Omar Samaha, who lost his sister Reema, when a madman opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech. You see the face of Toby Hoover, whose husband, Dale, was shot to death during the robbery of a hardware store in Ohio. You see the face of Tom Mauser, who lost his son Daniel in the awful massacre at Columbine High School. And you see the face of Reverend James Cohen, who lost one of his parishioners, Phyllis Shneck, in the tragedy in Tucson 16 days ago.

"Together, they stand in for the families of 34 people who will be murdered today. And together, we are here to say: We cannot wait any longer to act. We cannot turn our backs on this national calamity any longer. We cannot accept that 34 Americans will be murdered with guns in all of our tomorrows.

"Dr. King spoke of 'the fierce urgency of now.' You see the fierce urgency of now in these faces. You see it in faces of police chiefs across the country. You see it in faces of family members and friends, from small towns and big cities, who have lost loved ones to gun violence. You see the fierce urgency of now everywhere - except in Washington.

"It was not always this way. In the wake of the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, Congress was forced into action. Of course, even then, there was contentious debate about what kind of action that should be. But in October 1968, after impassioned pleas from President Johnson, Congress passed historic legislation. It established as national law a commonsense concept: For the safety of all Americans, certain categories of people - convicted felons, the mentally ill, and known drug abusers - should not be allowed to possess or purchase guns.

"While noble in purpose, the act was flawed in design. Because no system was created for actually translating its intent into reality. It was not until 1993, 25 years later, when President Clinton signed the Brady Bill, that the country created a background check system that could enforce the 1968 law. That bill was championed by President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was shot in the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981. But it had many other supporters, including Coretta Scott King - who, like her husband and son, was a tremendous force for good in her own right.

"The Brady Bill established, for the first time, a national, instant background check system, designed to prevent mentally unbalanced people - like John Hinckley, who came within an inch of taking a President's life - from obtaining firearms. But again, there were flaws in the design.

"The tragic fact is that often background checks just don't happen - or they don't work. They often don't take place at gun shows, where any criminal can buy a gun. If they had, the Columbine killers may not have gotten access to guns. Too often, the information that should be in the background check system isn't. If it was, the Virginia Tech shooter would have been denied by the gun dealer who sold him the semi-automatic handguns he used to murder 32 people, and the Arizona shooter should have been turned down, too.

"As of December 31st of last year, only 2,092 people were listed in the background check system as 'drug addicts or abusers.' That's just preposterous. We all know it. And unfortunately, one of the missing names was that of Jared Loughner.

"The time has clearly come to finally fulfill the intent of the 1968 law and the Brady Bill, by creating a genuine, credible background check system for the sale of firearms.

"Two basic steps will get us there. First, let's finally fulfill the intent of the 1968 law, by fixing the broken background check system. It should contain all the records of felony convictions, domestic violence misdemeanors and protective orders, drug use and addiction, and determinations of mental illness that would prevent those categories of troubled people from buying guns.

"Almost four years ago, in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, both Houses of Congress unanimously passed a law with that intent. Some progress was made as a result. The number of health records in the background check database, for example, has risen from 300,000 before Virginia Tech to some 1.1 million today. But 10 states have contributed no mental health records, and 18 states have contributed records on fewer than 100 people. And if you include missing felony convictions, domestic violence reports, and drug abuse histories, we know that there are millions of records missing from this database.

"Why? Because as is so often the case in Washington, actions didn't keep pace with rhetoric. So far, only 5 percent - that's right, 5 percent - of the funds deemed necessary to collect and enter this data has been appropriated to actually do the work. And there are also no real repercussions for states who fail to submit their records. Right now, states collectively stand to lose only $15 million in federal funding if they don't meet their reporting requirements.

"We have to put more at stake if this is going to be the national priority it must be. The new Congress should set a goal of getting this job finished within three years. And it should enact the necessary legislation, and appropriation, to make that happen.

"Second, we should close the loopholes that permit guns to be sold without background checks. Because there are far too many such sales to the wrong people. In a 2009 investigation by New York City, 63 percent of private sellers approached by investigators sold a gun to a purchaser who said he probably couldn't pass a background check. Licensed gun dealers are covered by the Brady background check system. But if you buy from a so-called 'occasional seller' at a gun show, for example, or from someone who peddles firearms from the trunk of his car, no background check is required under Federal law, no matter if you buy one gun or a small arsenal.

"Our bi-partisan coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has called for ensuring that at least at gun shows, every sale involves a background check. That's an important change, because it's the worst and most dangerous example of no background check on sales. And all Americans can join our nation's mayors by taking action at

"But I believe it is time to go further, with a very simple idea: Every gun sale should go through a background check. Of course, there should be reasonable exceptions - and they would include, for example, transfers of guns within families, or by wills, or to people who have a valid State-issued gun permit that meets or exceeds the Federal background check standard.

"But if we're going to prevent guns from falling into the hands of violent criminals, the mentally unstable, and other already prohibited dangerous persons, we need a comprehensive national background check system with no loopholes. That can be accomplished by requiring that gun sales be checked by licensed gun dealers, who will charge a minimal fee for the necessary paperwork. That will protect law-abiding gun owners - and protect us all from those who are violently lawless and mentally unbalanced.

"At the same time, Congress should get behind the bill introduced by Representative Carolyn McCarthy that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. It's hard to find a rational reason for why extended magazines should be sold to the public at large. It just makes it easier for a lunatic like Jared Loughner to kill people on a mass scale.

"Tomorrow night, President Obama will speak to the nation in his third State of the Union address. With our country still mourning the victims of Tucson, we believe it's an opportunity for our President to make a strong pledge to fix our gun laws and shore up our background check system. Because the 'State of our Union' includes the tragic reality that 34 Americans are murdered with guns every day - and most of them are purchased or possessed illegally.

"Last Monday, when we celebrated Dr. King's birthday, we honored his life and his legacy. Given the toll that gun violence takes in our communities, especially minority communities, I'm not sure there's a better way to honor him than to take basic actions that could save thousands of lives every single year."

Visit today to join the effort.