On Sunday, a serial domestic abuser with an AR-15 turned an American town into a war zone, again. The initial response from Republicans was (predictably) dismaying. Prominent GOP politicians and media figures argued that it was beyond the pale to discuss gun policy on a day when a group of Americans had been shot dead (a rule that effectively bars any discussion of gun laws in the United States); defended the sufficiency of prayers as a response to mass violence; extolled the public health benefits of ubiquitous assault weapons; and, most inventively, contended that getting murdered in a church is actually good.
But on Tuesday, a national Republican actually offered a (modestly) constructive response to the massacre in Sutherland Springs: Texas senator John Cornyn announced that he would introduce legislation “to ensure that all federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Defense, upload the required conviction records” to the federal background check database.
Devin Patrick Kelley, the 26-year-old gunman who killed 26 churchgoers Sunday, should not have been able to purchase firearms legally. In 2012, Kelley was convicted of domestic assault in a court martial. He had confessed to striking, kicking, and choking his wife, as well as repeatedly hitting his stepson in the head, until the toddler’s skull cracked. If the Air Force had uploaded his conviction to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), it’s possible Kelley would not have secured the assault rifle he used in First Baptist Church Sunday.
But the Air Force did not upload that conviction. This was not a tragic aberration. In February 2015, the Pentagon’s inspector general found that our military courts failed to submit fingerprints and criminal case outcomes in about 30 percent of cases.
America desperately needs stronger background check laws. At present, anyone can buy a gun from a private seller over the internet no matter his or her criminal history. But some lives could surely be saved merely by ramping up enforcement of the laws we already have. As Vox’s German Lopez notes:
As the Air Force situation shows, the [background check] system relies on people properly reporting to the right database. This has always been a problem — not just for branches of the military, but even entire state agencies.
In 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and himself at his college campus. Cho was not supposed to be able to buy a gun due to a history of mental illness. But the correct records were never sent to NICS.
…The federal background check system is also notoriously underfunded, understaffed, and underresourced, allowing red flags to slip through. Although there are no waiting periods under federal law, a check that turns out inconclusive can be extended for three business days for further investigation. But these three days are a maximum for the government — and sometimes, the three days lapse without the FBI completing its check, and a buyer can, at that point, purchase a gun without the completed check.
The FBI admitted that something like this happened for Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015: Roof should have failed a background check for a handgun purchase after admitting to illegally possessing controlled substances in the past, but the FBI examiner did not obtain the shooter’s record in time.
It’s unclear exactly what the mechanism of Cornyn’s bill will be. But increasing the incentives that federal agencies have to comply with reporting requirements — while boosting the funds available for the administration of the background check system — would seem like intuitive ways of addressing the problem.
Regardless, it is (very mildly) encouraging to see a Republican acknowledge that preventing violent people from purchasing guns is a legitimate government function. Cornyn’s proposal is utterly inadequate to the scope of our gun epidemic. But proposing small-bore reforms that could do some good at the margins — while doing nothing to end our nation’s broader firearms problem — is more than we’ve come to expect from Republicans. In fact, it’s just about all we’ve come to expect from Democrats.