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Where The U.S. Stands On Background Checks In Relation To Gun Policy


This morning, President Trump took to Twitter to call on Republicans and Democrats to come together on background checks, a suggestion he did not repeat in televised remarks later. Now, to catch us up on where we are now with background check measures and what such laws would actually do, we're joined by Adam Winkler. He's a professor at UCLA Law. He focuses on gun policy.

Welcome to the program.

ADAM WINKLER: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: So to start our conversation, the House earlier this year did pass some bills regulating background checks. Can you describe in detail what they are?

WINKLER: Yes. There are two bills. One - H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019. And this would close the current loophole in the gun laws. Under the current laws, a federally licensed dealer must conduct a background check, but private sellers, people who are not licensed dealers, can sell guns without conducting a background check. This law would close that loophole.

There's also another law, H.R.1112, also described as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. And this would do the same in closing that private sale loophole but also extend the waiting period for the delivery of guns when the FBI is having trouble conducting a background check. Under current law, that gun has to be delivered within 72 hours. The proposal that passed the House would extend that to 10 days.

CORNISH: Now, over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was actually attacked on Twitter for not taking up these bills in the Senate. As we mentioned, they did pass the House. Did he give a reason why they're not considering them?

WINKLER: Well, part of the problem is that for many Republicans in the Senate, they don't believe these laws will have an impact on gun violence or are a good response to mass shootings. As many of them are likely to say, mass shooters tend to get their firearms legally, often passing a background check.

CORNISH: About a dozen states already have laws that require universal background checks. Is it clear yet? Is there any data to show that this has been effective in reducing gun deaths?

WINKLER: Well, of course, any state-level gun law is difficult to enforce because borders are porous. California has universal background checks, but it's neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona have always been a source of a lot of illegal crime guns. One thing we do find is that states that have universal background checks tend to have their guns found at crime scenes much less often than the states that don't have universal background checks.

CORNISH: Given the fact that people can cross state lines, what do you consider effective gun policy? And what's the measure of effectiveness?

WINKLER: Well, effective gun policy will be policy that makes it harder for criminals and the mentally ill and those who shouldn't have access to guns to get guns. And part of that is universal background checks, making it very difficult for anyone who wants to purchase a gun to be able to go buy one. Make it so that you have to pass a background check to get your hands on a gun.

There's also things we can do in terms of beefing up federal law enforcement. The NRA often says we need to enforce the gun laws on the books, but the NRA has really handcuffed federal law enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from enforcing our gun laws with arcane rules and limits on when they can do inspections.

The key is to figure out what is the goal? These mass shootings lead us to think, what can we do to stop mass shootings? But, in fact, most of the gun proposals are focused on a different problem, which is bringing down the daily death toll from ordinary gun violence - suicide, criminal misuse of guns - not these high-profile mass shootings, which are an especially hard problem to stop.

CORNISH: The president, when he spoke on television, didn't talk about strengthening background check laws, but he did make mention of red flag laws. This is legislation that would allow guns to be taken away from people deemed a risk to public safety. Do you see that as significant - the fact that he was specific in mentioning one but not the other?

WINKLER: Well, it is significant, in part because there has been emerging Republican support for red flag laws. Lindsey Graham is considering federal legislation that would provide funding for states to encourage them to create their own red flag laws. And this may be a growing area of emerging bipartisan consensus on gun reform.

CORNISH: That's Adam Winkler, professor at UCLA Law.

Thanks so much.

WINKLER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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