I wanted to buy a gun. I should be more specific. I wanted to buy a Taurus TX-22 to add to my ever-growing collection of firearms.
When I went to a local sporting goods store to pick up the pistol I had ordered, the clerk asked me to fill out the paperwork for the standard background check. While he was running that through the system, I browsed the store, finding an additional $200 in merchandise — which I may or may not have needed. After 30 minutes, I walked out with my new prized possession.
The toughest thing I did that day was decide on which brand of insect repellent to buy. The federal background check — the safeguard that ensures I am not a convicted felon or a domestic abuser with a restraining order — was a breeze, as it has been every time I’ve gone through it.
That’s why I am perplexed that updating our federal background check laws has been so difficult. The U.S. Senate is about to debate the issue, and as a gun enthusiast, a father, a combat veteran and an NRA-certified pistol instructor, I implore them to pass a bill to make the system work better.
Not many things find approval on both sides of the political aisle these days, but an expanded background check policy does. Nine out of ten Americans, including most veterans and law enforcement, support background checks. The reason is simple: Background checks keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and therefore, save lives. States that require background checks on all gun sales have lower rates of homicide, suicide, and gun trafficking.
Most gun owners buy their guns — as I did — from federally licensed firearm dealers. In order to maintain that federal license, the seller must run a background check prior to every gun sale through the FBI’s database. As long as the gun buyer is not a prohibited purchaser, the sale goes through. Since the inception of the current law in 1994, more than 3.5 million sales have been denied, successfully keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
However, the current federal background check law needs updating. In 1993, I was in elementary school, and the internet was in its infancy. Back then, no lawmaker could have predicted the robust online marketplaces that exist today. And, naturally, those marketplaces do now exist for guns. In fact, each year one gun-selling site offers more than 1.2 million ads for firearms that would not legally require a background check.
The catch is that the federal background check law is silent on sales brokered online and completed person-to-person when they are made by anyone other than a federally licensed gun dealer. The law was created at a time when the expectation was that sellers typically knew the buyers personally. As a law-abiding citizen, a seller was essentially vouching that the other person was also a law-abiding citizen. The law was simply not written in a way that contemplated the massive market that has emerged and enables the transfer of firearms between two strangers.
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So, effectively the law treats a sale brokered online between two strangers the same way it would treat a father passing down a shotgun to his son – that is, no background check is required. A seller has no obligation to ask if they are selling a gun to a person who intends to use them to harm others or themselves. Meanwhile, a recent investigation found that one in nine prospective gun buyers responding to online ads would not pass a background check.
So, over the past three decades, states have instituted a patchwork of gun laws to try to shore up the existing federal law. But still nearly 30 states don’t require background checks on all handgun sales, including private sales arranged online and at gun shows. I’ve bought guns in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, and each experience was relatively simple for someone like me who can pass a background check.
But why should these laws vary from state to state? If anything, it makes it confusing for the gun buyer. And why do the majority of states allow dangerous people to do an end run around the federal laws by seeking out private sellers online?
Updating the federal background check law would make everything uniform. Not only would the updated law increase safety and reduce gun deaths, but it would also make it a lot simpler for gun owners like me to understand the laws across states. Let’s just say that I am glad that I am not on active duty anymore, moving every three years and trying to keep up with each state’s requirements.
In the military, when it comes to firearms, we believe in training, safety, and accountability. When I am instructing my students on pistol use, I rely on those same tenets. When I am storing my guns at home, I am always conscious of what I learned in the Army.
Now, I am asking the Senate to show some accountability themselves, by passing common sense, bipartisan background check legislation that will save lives.
I’ll be calling Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to make sure they vote “Yes” to pass bipartisan background checks legislation. If you’re a gun owner, or a veteran, or a person who cares about gun safety, I urge you to do the same.
Justin McFarlin is an Army combat veteran and an NRA-certified pistol instructor. He lives in Melbourne.