Background checks aren’t gun control, they’re crime control

Handguns on display during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting on May 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
Handguns on display during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting on May 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I spent 33 years in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and if I had a dollar for every time a citizen asked me or my colleagues to run a background check on someone who wanted to purchase their firearm, I wouldn’t need my pension.

Of course we couldn’t do that, not even for the family, friends and acquaintances who asked, who only wanted to be sure their firearm wouldn’t be sold to just anyone. Such checks were allowed for law enforcement only.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, swept into law by the assassinations of the 1960’s, strengthened gun laws, and the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993, passed after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, did mandate background checks. These two laws have prevented uncountable murders and violent crimes. Without them, American life would be drastically different–and worse. I used to say to the Special Agents and detectives assigned to my division, “That gun trafficking ring you broke up was about to be a series of murders.” Or, “That armed felon you just arrested was a murder looking to happen.”

Even as we grieve for the victims of Aurora and Newtown, or lose promising young lives in Chicago and Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, America is enjoying an overall decrease in firearms violence. Many factors are involved, but an important one is the vigorous enforcement of firearms laws. That effort has spanned presidential administrations and has put trigger-pullers and predators in prison for long sentences. If you’re in a cell block, you’re not out with your piece, preying on your neighborhood.

That’s why I say that gun safety laws are not gun control–they are crime control.

But we can do so much better. Background checks work. Many felons have been prevented from buying guns. Criminals brag that they can buy guns on the street–and yes, it happens, but not without obstacles. And those obstacles are what allow police and ATF agents to apprehend them and stop the next murder. A criminal in a back alley may in fact be making a deal with an informant or an undercover agent.

The background check bill should pass and it should be coupled with a strong gun trafficking law and beefed up resources for police and ATF. Senator Joe Manchin has shown real leadership and insight on all of this. He was like the guy who would call and ask what he could do to make sure his gun sale was done correctly.

Leaders who either reach too far, or want it all their way, will fail. The background check bill is a compromise bill, but for some there is no compromise. I would suggest they reassess their position in light of the facts and not lobbyist talking points. One of the educators at Newtown after the tragedy referred to a Scripture quotation: A little child shall lead them. Many children, many people are leading, marching, walking, and speaking. The leaders in Congress in both parties need to walk with them.