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How do gun background checks work? A look at the current system

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In the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school earlier this month, President Trump is seemingly open to strengthening federal background checks for gun purchases.

“While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Sunday, adding that the president has spoken to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn about a bill to “improve federal compliance with criminal background check legislation.”

On Twitter Tuesday, Trump said Republicans and Democrats “must now focus on strengthening” federal background checks. 

Here’s a look at how the federal background check works, and what activists and experts have to say about it.

What happens when you want to purchase a gun?

In order to purchase a gun from a federal firearms licensed dealer (FFL), a consumer must provide identification and pass a federal background check using the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ 4473 form.

The first page of the document requires basic information, including the buyer’s full name, address, sex, birthday and ethnicity. A Social Security number is encouraged, but not required.

The form also asks the buyer about criminal background, immigration status and mental health — information that could result in a consumer being denied. Those questions include:

  • Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony, or any other crime for which the judge could have imprisoned you for more than one year, even if you received a shorter sentence including probation?
  • Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug or any other controlled substance?
  • Have you been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions?
  • Have you ever been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence?

Lying on the federal form is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, an ATF spokesperson confirmed to Fox News. That penalty is also listed at the top of the form.

Once the form is completed, the dealer will submit it to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) online or by phone. Then, almost immediately, the licensed seller will know how to continue with the sale:

  • Proceed: If NICS indicates the seller can proceed, then the sale can continue.
  • Canceled or Denied: Should NICS mark the form as “canceled” or “denied,” the seller cannot legally sell the firearm to the buyer. Michael Smith, the vice president of marketing and media for Upstate Armory Group, a firearm dealer in Simpsonville, S.C., told Fox News he generally provides the customer with contact information for a local lawyer who handles restoration of firearm rights in case the failed background check is erroneous. There have been times police have arrived at the gun shop to arrest the customer who legally cannot purchase a gun, Smith said.
  • Delayed: If the background check elicits a “delayed” response from NICS, the seller cannot complete the transaction for at least three business days. Unless a specific “denied” designation is issued, the seller will be able to complete the transaction with the customer after that period elapses, under federal law.

Even before a 4473 form is filled out, Robbie Wheaton, vice president of the Wheaton Arms Inc. gun shop in Piedmont, S.C., said he takes note of the customer. If a customer seems to be intoxicated or “shady” – talking, for instance, about a cheating spouse – dealers don’t have to sell that person a gun.

“A shop has a final right to say ‘no’ based on a person’s behavior whether they will sell a firearm to them or not.”

– Robbie Wheaton, vice president of Wheaton Arms Inc. in South Carolina

“As a federal firearms licensee, we have the right to be able to refuse the transfer of firearms to someone,” Wheaton told Fox News. “A shop has a final right to say ‘no’ based on a person’s behavior whether they will sell a firearm to them or not.”

Smith praised the background check system, as it can flag other discrepancies for sellers, such as an age issue.

South Carolina law, for example, prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from purchasing a long gun (such as an AR-15) and anyone under 21 from buying a pistol, handgun or other firearm, he said. The background check can prevent sellers, particularly at hectic gun shows, from accidentally selling a firearm to someone who isn’t of age, Smith said.

Why do I have to complete the background check?

Thanks to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the FBI created the NICS in 1998. The system is supposed to instantaneously let a firearms dealer know whether a buyer is legally allowed to purchase the gun.

According to the FBI, more than 230 million checks have been made by cashiers prior to a purchase and more than 1.3 million denials have been issued since the system was put in place.

Is this process the same in every state?

No.

In South Carolina, for example, consumers who already have a concealed weapons permit do not need to go through a background check in order to purchase a firearm in the state, multiple dealers in the Palmetto State told Fox News.

Also, state laws may be superseded by federal law. The 4473 form asks consumers about marijuana use. Those who use the drug, in states where recreational or medicinal use is legal, will be denied a firearm, Wheaton said.

In Hawaii, after the first legal medicinal marijuana dispensary opened in the state in 2017, local law enforcement agencies asked users who are also gun owners to turn in their firearms within 30 days, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Is this system strong enough?

It depends on who you ask.

Jonas Oransky, the deputy legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for stronger gun control, praised the background check system but said it has “significant gaps.”

Specifically, Oransky’s organization points to a “private sale loophole.” Federal law requires licensed dealers to complete background checks, but people can also purchase guns from a private seller – such as a friend or through online classifieds websites like ArmsList.com. (ArmsList.com prompts users to “accept” a terms of use document, which acknowledges the website doesn’t certify or investigate transactions and instructs users not to use the site for “illegal purposes.”)

“It doesn’t matter necessarily if people are selling at scale,” Oransky told Fox News. “It’s not that all sellers are dangerous or devious, but buyers who know that they can skip the background check can look for an unlicensed seller.”

Wheaton, who has been in the firearms business full time since 2007, said he and other licensed sellers try to persuade customers to transfer guns through a licensed dealer so a background check can be conducted.

Oransky also pointed to the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allows dealers to sell guns to a customer before a background check is completed – when NICS marks a document “delayed” but does not approve or deny it within three business days. He said a disproportionate number of buyers who obtain a gun before a background check is completed are domestic abusers, citing complex records and restraining orders that investigators need additional time to read through or discuss with the appropriate local law enforcement agency.

“The FBI should have the time they need to complete a background check. It’s more important than expediting sales to people who shouldn’t have a gun,” he said.

On the other hand, Second Amendment advocates argue that the background check system already does too much.

“We don’t think it’s proper for people to have to prove their innocence to the government in order to exercise their God-given right,” Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a Virginia-based gun rights nonprofit, told Fox News.

“Our rights are listed in the Bill of Rights for a reason,” he continued. “People’s rights are being infringed upon and it’s resulting – in some cases – in death and in other cases extreme inconvenience in being able to purchase firearms.”

Pratt also said the background check system doesn’t do its job, as several of the more recent mass shooters in the U.S., including the suspect in the fatal shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Fla., were able to pass background checks.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @K_Schallhorn.



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Democrats harden position on infrastructure deal as doubts grow on bipartisan deal

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WASHINGTON — Progressive Democrats working on a bipartisan infrastructure deal hardened their position on the legislation after tense talks Monday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Senate Democrats leadership team, came out against a bipartisan agreement Monday night after meeting with a bipartisan group of 10 senators.

“I wouldn’t vote for it,” Sanders told reporters. “The bottom line is, there are a lot of needs facing this country. Now is the time to address those needs, and it has to be paid for in a progressive way, given the fact that we have massive income and wealth inequality in America.”

Last week, the so-called G10 group of five Democrats and five Republicans said they had reached a tentative infrastructure deal, but skepticism from Republicans and impatience from Democrats left its prospects uncertain as lawmakers departed for the weekend.

Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have demanded that any deal must include action on climate change. The senators plan to hold a news conference Tuesday to call on lawmakers to include substantive climate action in the infrastructure proposal, such as investments to reduce emissions.

Some Democrats have tried to pressure their leadership to abandon bipartisan talks and instead push through a partisan bill, but there’s no guarantee that there are 50 Democratic votes for that tactic, either. And with each Democratic vote appearing to be in jeopardy, another Republican would need to vote in favor.

That means the bipartisan group will need to secure more than 10 Republicans to get its proposal across the finish line. Many in the Republican conference are still bitter over negotiations between President Joe Biden and their chief negotiator, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., breaking down earlier this month.

The group of lawmakers huddled Monday night to flesh out details of their plan. But leaving the half-hour meeting, senators were sending mixed signals to reporters staked out.

“There are still conversations on the pay-fors,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said. “There is no agreement.”

The lawmakers didn’t seem to be on the same page about whether a gas tax would help pay for the infrastructure proposal. Republicans said it was part of the plan, while Democrats said it wasn’t. The White House opposes the idea, saying it would lead to tax increases on the middle class.

However, several senators said they plan to release their proposal with details this week — an ambitious goal for a group that seems to have disagreements on key issues. Both sides plan to present the plan during their respective lunches tomorrow afternoon, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said.



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Biden on Russia’s ‘aggressive acts’ that post threat to NATO

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G-7 nations pledge major climate action, with key details missing

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WASHINGTON — Leaders of the G-7 club of wealthy nations took major symbolic strides toward solidifying global climate action at their U.K. summit, but stopped short of detailing how to confront two of the most pressing challenges: phasing out coal and financing the developing world’s energy transition.

With palpable relief after four years of former President Donald Trump, G-7 leaders heaped praise on President Joe Biden and sought to marry their own climate efforts to his domestic political agenda, coalescing under the umbrella of “build back better.” They also rallied behind a pledge to conserve 30 percent of lands and oceans by 2030, a goal Biden had already set for the United States.

“You know, we had a president last who basically said, ‘It’s not a problem, global warming,'” Biden said in a news conference capping his trip to the summit in Cornwall, England. “It is the existential problem facing humanity, and it’s been treated that way.”

But climate analysts, eyeing the G-7’s commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, emerged from the summit vexed over the failure to commit to specific steps broadly acknowledged as essential to meeting that goal. Continued burning of coal to generate power, for example, is widely accepted to be counterproductive to averting climate change’s worst effects.

“These are the seven countries that have to lead from the front,” said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s former special envoy for climate and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Borrowing a phrase from the ongoing European soccer championship, she added: “It was an open goal, and they missed.”

The U.S. and its G-7 allies did re-up their pledge, first made in 2009, to collectively contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 to help poorer nations reduce emissions and fortify themselves against the growing effects of climate change. That $100 billion goal was never met. But the nations recommitted to that figure anyway, while extending the timeline for reaching it to 2025.

Yet, the joint communiqué that codifies the agreements reached at the summit included no new specific commitments for how countries would reach that figure. The U.S. is billions behind in actually writing checks for pledges it has made in the past.

“They restated a goal that’s been there for a decade, but they didn’t provide clarity about how that was going to be achieved,” said David Waskow, international climate director for the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

Some more hopeful signs did emerge in the hours after the summit ended, with Canada announcing it would double its annual pledge to $4.4 billion in U.S. dollars by 2025, and Germany saying it would triple it during that period, to more than $7 billion.

“That’s really good to see,” said Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The United States, by contrast, “did not put any clear ambition on the table” with respect to global financing, she added.

The G-7 nations did put to paper a pledge to halve their emissions by 2030 and zero them out from their economies by 2050. That marked progress since the most recent G-7 summits, but did not move the ball from what countries including the U.S. have already committed. The United Kingdom and the European Union, in fact, have already pledged to cut much more on an even faster timeline.

And while the leaders vowed to “accelerate the transition away from new sales of diesel and petrol cars” to promote electric vehicles, they did not set a deadline to phase out gas-guzzling vehicles, as some countries before the summit had hoped.

On coal-fired power plants, the G-7 nations did set a deadline of next year to stop financing “unabated international thermal coal power generation.” That’s significant, considering that the world’s largest emitter, China, continues to fund new coal plants overseas.

Yet, the careful phrasing from the G-7 leaders leaves wiggle room to keep financing coal plants that use carbon capture technology to sequester and store carbon dioxide emitted from burning coal.

Perhaps the most glaring omission from the G-7 climate agreement, environmental advocates said, was the lack of any deadline for when nations will stop burning coal at home.

When the environmental ministers for the nations met virtually in May to lay the groundwork for this month’s summit, they jointly committed to achieving an “overwhelmingly decarbonized power system in the 2030s,” technical-speak for saying heavily polluting coal plants would be phased out by the end of the next decade.

But when Biden and other leaders emerged from the meeting, that language was absent from their communiqué, which instead pledged merely to “further accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity” without specifying a date.

Jason Bordoff, a White House National Security Council official in the Obama administration, said criticism of the Biden administration over that point was misplaced, given that Biden has already set a goal for U.S. electricity to be carbon-neutral by 2035. That goal broadly assumes phasing out coal anyway, along with cleaner-burning sources like natural gas.

“All the growth in coal use is in emerging markets and developing economies, so the G-7 agreement not to finance new coal projects is very significant, along with the pledge of assistance to help nations move away from fossil fuels,” said Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Still, the G-7 summit in Cornwall may have been the last, best chance for the world’s wealthiest democracies to increase their leverage over China and other major emitters by uniting behind specific, joint goals well ahead of November. That is when leaders will gather in Scotland for a much-anticipated U.N. climate conference.

All of the remaining venues for high-level global diplomacy before that conference — including September’s U.N. General Assembly in New York and October’s G-20 summit in Rome — will include China.

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