By Asha Rangappa
Since the 2020 election, Republican-led state legislatures — including states that were at the center of former President Trump’s election challenges like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona — have forged full speed ahead with a spate of laws designed to restrict access to voting. In fact, the Brennan Center’s voting bills tracker has identified 253 bills in 43 states that restrict access to voting, all of which have been introduced since February of this year. The underlying rationale for these bills is protecting “election integrity” — a catchphrase that has come to represent the unfounded allegation that millions of people are voting illegally. However, the party’s reaction to two bills passed by the House this week — one that would create universal background checks for the purchase or transfer of firearms, and another that would close the so-called “Charleston loophole” and extend the background check review period to ten days — demonstrates that their obsession with “integrity” doesn’t extend equally to the exercise of all constitutional rights, even when the consequences can be fatal.
First, some background. Under federal law, individuals are ineligible to purchase firearms if they meet one of nine criteria. These include individuals who are: 1) felons; 2) fugitives; 3) drug addicts or unlawful drug users; 4) persons committed to mental institutions or have been adjudicated as “mentally defective”; 5) persons dishonorably discharged from the armed forces; 6) persons who have renounced their U.S. citizenship; 7) undocumented immigrants or nonimmigrants; 8) persons subject to certain domestic violence restraining orders; and 9) persons convicted of misdemeanor offenses of domestic violence. Sellers determine whether a person attempting to obtain a firearm meets one of these criteria by running their information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS), a database maintained by the FBI.
The problem is that only federally-licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) are required by current federal law to run a NICS background check. Intrastate transfers of firearms between private parties — the “Gun Show Loophole” — do not require background checks. States can choose to extend the background check requirement at the point of sale or transfer for all firearms, an additional layer of oversight that 13 states have taken. But the majority of states fall short of making such checks “universal,” and a recent study estimates that 22% of current gun owners who obtained their firearms in the last two years did so without a background check; for owners who purchased their gun online in the last two years that number jumps to 45%. This gap makes it easier for guns to fall into the hands of criminals: The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence notes that 80% of guns used for criminal purposes are obtained through transfers from unlicensed sellers.
Are you frustrated yet? It gets worse. Even when firearms dealers run background checks through NICS, they may not catch all potential disqualifiers. That’s because several of the ineligible criteria — like domestic violence convictions and many drug offenses — are state crimes. Those will only end up in NICS if a state reports them to the FBI in a timely manner, opening up another loophole for illegal buyers. In addition, the FBI only has a three-day window to turn around a background check request, a timeline that isn’t always feasible given the overload of requests it receives: A study by ThinkProgress found that in 2018, the FBI failed to complete 276,000 of its gun background checks — about 3 percent of the 8.1 million requests received — within three days.
This is what happened with Dylan Roof, the shooter who killed nine worshippers at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Roof had been arrested for possessing narcotics several months before his shooting, and later admitted to the crime to local law enforcement — a fact that should have disqualified him from purchasing a gun from an FFL that June. But due to errors in communication between the FBI and law enforcement, this information was not entered into NICS. While it’s possible the discrepancy could have been cured eventually, the FBI did not return these results to the dealer selling Roof’s gun within three days, allowing the purchase to proceed. The gun Roof purchased was the one he used in the church shooting. (NB: Some states voluntarily run a prospective buyer through their own records, which can ensure that people like Roof don’t fall through the cracks, but South Carolina is not one of those states.)
If our gun laws sound like the legal version of swiss cheese, it’s because they are. Enacting universal background checks and increasing the review period for these checks to 10 days makes sure that guns stay out of the hands of people who are not legally allowed to own them, and these measures could save lives. You wouldn’t know that from Republicans’ reaction to these common-sense gun laws. Speaking on the House floor, Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) decried the House bills as a “bastardization of the Constitution.” We’ve heard the other defenses for unfettered gun rights: “We don’t need more laws, just enforce the laws we already have.” Or, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And of course, a recent favorite, “They’re coming to take your guns.”
Americans own almost 46% of the civilian-owned weapons in the world. Imagine if these lawmakers defended the right to vote with the same zeal as they do the right to own guns. Or imagine if they were as concerned with “gun ownership integrity” (an actual problem) as they are with “voter integrity” (a made-up problem). Fortunately, the majority of Americans believe our gun laws should be stricter. You wouldn’t know it from listening to the GOP. But maybe the silver lining here is that we just need to get better at our messaging about voting rights. I don’t know about you, but they can come take my vote out of my cold, dead hands.