Why Harry Reid Must Make Universal Background Checks Part Of Gun Law Reform

Tuesday night, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) declared that an assault weapons ban would not be in the gun law reform package he was planning to bring to the floor for a cloture vote, a move expected by all sides of the debate. But in an surprising twist, Reid also suggested that a provision requiring gun purchasers to undergo background checks could also be excluded from the comprehensive package.

Though Reid cited a recent breakdown in bipartisan negotiations over the issue of whether dealers should retain records of background checks, failing to pass the measure would deal a major blow to gun violence prevention efforts. Advocating for universal background checks isn’t just an obvious political winner — it’s absolutely critical to keeping guns out criminal hands and, most importantly, preventing innocent people from dying from gunfire:

1. Universal background checks deter criminals from purchasing guns. This isn’t really a contestable point. 80 percent of crime guns are purchased through “private” sales, which means from unlicensed dealers at gun shows or other people currently exempted from having to run background checks under federal law. Forcing all sellers to run background checks both deters criminals from buying guns (if they fail the check they can be prosecuted) and prevents a check on sellers that might be inclined to sell to shady characters if they didn’t know they were committing a federal crime. Unsurprisingly, the best available research suggests that “states which do not regulate private gun sales, adopt permit-to-purchase licensing systems, or have gun owner accountability measures, like mandatory reporting of gun thefts, export significantly more guns used by criminals to other states that have constrained the supply of guns for criminals by adopting strict gun sales regulations.” That’s why the law needs to be federal — states with lax background checks are de facto shipping crime guns around the country.

2. They save lives. Johns Hopkins gun expert Daniel Webster recently studied what happened when Missouri repealed its “purchase-to-permit” law, which was essentially a universal background check requirement. Turns out that, while regional and national gun homicides were declining, Missouri’s spiked by 25 percent. If the federal law worked in reverse, reducing gun homicides by 25 percent would have saved 2,750 lives per year.


3. They’re virtually cost free. Background checks are very cheap, very quick, and easily accessible to virtually all Americans. So background checks wouldn’t really prevent law-abiding Americans from purchasing guns, but would significantly limit criminal access to firearms.

4. Americans are united around them. Poll after poll has confirmed that somewhere around 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks. The figure is basically identical among gun owners (87 percent) and slightly lower, but still overwhelmingly high, among NRA members (74 percent).

Reid, who has a relatively high NRA rating (for a Democrat), has expressed skepticism about some parts of President Obama’s comprehensive gun violence prevention package. Still, lawmakers will ultimately have to vote on background checks — as an amendment or part of a comprehensive plan — and those who oppose the measure, they’ll have to justify their position to the 90 percent of Americans who support it.


On Thursday, Reid committed to advancing a gun violence bill that contained universal background checks as part of the central package. The record-keeping provision — which, as indicated above, was the cause of the initial breakdown in bipartisan background check negotiations — mirrors the stronger proposal written by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and passed by the Judiciary Committee, but a statement from Reid’s office says he “is leaving the door open to replace the Judiciary Committee-reported background check language with a compromise package, should one emerge.”