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Background Check Failure Not an Option

Published Date: Jan. 26, 2011
by: Timothy McClanahan

The man responsible for the shooting in Tucson, AZ of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others bought his gun legally. To legally buy that gun, Jared Lee Loughner had to pass a federally-mandated background check. Despite his history of erratic (at best) behavior, he did pass that background check. The question everyone is asking lately is, "How?"

The NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) is the background check system in question, and is run by the FBI. The system was put in place after the Brady Handgun Violence Protect Act was put into place in 1993. Along with criminal activities, people who have been judged to have mental defects are supposed to be prohibited from purchasing firearms. The problem, however, was not in the background check itself, or with the retailer who sold Loughner the Glock 19 pistol, but in the information the background check system had access to. Loughner had never been judged as mentally defective, and thus there was nothing for the background check to find.

Several lawmakers are proposing changes to close that loophole in the system, along with others, to try to prevent another tragedy like the one in Tucson. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban made it illegal to have weapon magazines with more than ten rounds - the one Loughner used held up to thirty-three. While that law was allowed to expire in 2004, it seems a more likely bet that simply changing what kind of information goes into the background check database will be able to pass Congressional muster over reenacting that ban, but even this is no sure thing in the highly partisan atmosphere present in current politics.

The states are currently not forced to supply information to the database, but some lawmakers are proposing to increase the penalties for not supply information, or outright forcing them to do so. While nobody can say whether that would have stopped Loughner's shooting spree, it certainly would have been a good faith, common sense effort.

Background checks are still an important part of screening people for various things, even aside from weapons purchases. While mental health information is still lacking in many Federal and State databases, convictions are still reliably entered into those systems, and can be invaluable in determining who is a worthy candidate for employment in areas that are financially-sensitive, in daycare, and many other positions.

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