Congress Should Heed the People on Gun Safety

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Nearly three decades since Congress last passed a meaningful gun-safety law, the House of Representatives is set to consider bills this week to strengthen the federal background-check system. Democratic leaders should move quickly to bring the legislation to a vote in the Senate, as well — and expose those lawmakers who continue to block common-sense reforms the public overwhelmingly supports.

Under current federal law, anyone buying firearms from a licensed seller is subject to a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Since the 1990s, the system has prevented at least 3.5 million sales to prohibited buyers. But it has flaws — and the biggest is a loophole that allows buyers to avoid background checks by purchasing guns from unlicensed dealers, often at gun shows or over the internet. As a result, more than one in five Americans report having made their most recent gun purchase without receiving a background check. 

Closing the loophole would save lives. In states that go beyond federal law and require universal background checks, gun homicide rates are 10% lower than in the rest of the country. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that closed the loophole, requiring all transactions to be processed through licensed dealers, who would then submit buyers’ names to the background-check system. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy sponsored a companion bill, but former majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to a vote.

Democrats have reintroduced both bills, as well as a separate measure in the House that would prevent many gun sales from going forward before a background check is completed. Overcoming a Republican filibuster in the Senate will require 60 votes, making passage uncertain at best. Even if the effort fails, though, it will be instructive to see which lawmakers oppose an idea that is backed not merely by the vast majority of the public, but by roughly nine in 10 gun owners.

Congress should vote on additional steps to improve background checks, including closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, which gives people convicted of domestic abuse easier access to guns if they aren’t married to the victim. Another legislative priority should be expanding extreme-risk protection orders to all 50 states, which would allow authorities to temporarily disarm people who pose a risk to themselves or others. 

President Joe Biden has pledged support for stricter background checks and signaled a willingness to take executive action to address gun violence if Congress fails to send legislation to his desk. It’s past time for lawmakers to listen to the public, and be held to account for the votes they cast.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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