By Leemor Banai
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman became the first mass shooter in American history. He killed seventeen people, including his wife and mother, and wounded more than thirty others on the University of Texas – Austin campus. Since then, mass shootings have become more common in today’s society, with two of the deadliest occurring in the past four months—killing approximately 85 people and injuring over 500. Due to the frequency of these tragedies, congressional intervention seems imminent.
Washington, along with most of the country, is split on gun-control, but some issues are more controversial than others. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 88% Republicans and 90% Democrats are in favor of legislation that would prevent the mentally ill from purchasing a gun. In the same poll, 70% Republicans and 88% Democrats are in favor of expanded background checks for guns shows and private sales of guns. However, when it comes to other gun-control issues, Republicans and Democrats seem to have little common ground: for example, 82% of Republicans are in favor of increased areas that allow concealed weapons, whereas only 41% of Democrats are in favor. In the grand scheme of the gun control debate, there is a general agreement between all parties that there should be legislation barring the mentally ill and individuals on watch lists, like the no-fly list, from purchasing guns.
The disagreement boils down to whether legislation should protect gun rights or control gun ownership. Majority of gun owners believe it is a part of their constitutional freedom to own a gun. The second amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “ a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun owners believe owning a gun is essential to their ideals of freedom and part of their overall identity. On the other hand, non-gun owners question the ethics and purpose of owning a gun, and desire, at the very least, some updated regulation over the weapons.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 is a U.S. federal law that regulates interstate commerce of firearms by barring any interstate transfer of guns. Accompanying this is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System which determines, through a background check, if an individual is eligible to purchase a gun. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which the shooter was able to purchase a gun even though he should have been barred from obtaining one, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendment Act to correct the systems failures. This Act failed due to lack of funding, lack of up to date information on criminal and mental illness data, and did not fix the major issue of criminals being able to obtain firearms through other means.
When first drafted and introduced to the House of Representatives in November 2017, “Fix NICS” was believed to be the nonpartisan gun control legislation everyone hoped for, but now it seems the Act is in jeopardy. In early December, the House of Representatives passed the concealed carry, “reciprocity” bill, backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which allows qualified non-residents to carry concealed firearms in another state that allows concealed weapons. Thus, states with strict gun laws, but maintain laws that permit concealed carry, such as New York, will have to honor out of state gun permits with less strict requirements. The bill also states that a person lawfully carrying a handgun in another state is not subject to the federal prohibition on having a firearm in a school zone, and may carry the handgun in federally owned lands open to the public. The reciprocity bill and “Fix NICS” directly clash against each other. “Fix NICS” tries to control who can possess or own a gun while the reciprocity bill expands unregulated gun movement across the country.
The Fix NICS Act was drafted by Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas and Senator Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut. Five other senators have signed onto it, and three more have co-sponsored it. It is no coincidence that the two drafting senators are from states victim to mass shootings; Texas with the Sutherlands Spring church shooting and Connecticut with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The Fix NICS Act attempts to tackle its’ predecessors’ shortcomings. The bill is focused on updating the system with current background check information, asking federal and states agencies to upload and verify as much information on criminal and mental health records to bar unfit individuals from purchasing a gun. There is no federal mandate requiring states to provide information for the system due to the 10th amendment, so the new Act will provide incentives such as grants, accountability measures, and withholding bonuses to encourage state participation. Another goal of the Act is to upload records of domestic violence crimes in the system as an added background check, which is currently not required.
There are some concerns about what information agencies will be giving up when complying with the “Fix NICS” system. The bill creates incentives to ensure states and federal agencies only provide information already required by the original NICS system, and will not let states dump non-adjudicated individuals into the system. Furthermore, nothing in the bill stops law abiding citizens from obtaining a gun. Its only concern is precluding the wrong people from possessing a firearm. The main goal for “Fix NICS” is to ensure safety and security in the future and decrease gun violence by those who never should have obtained a firearm. This can only be achieved if state and federal agencies comply and provide the already required information.
“Fix NICS” is the most promising solution for gun possession regulation to date. Its goal is to make sure only those fit to own a gun can obtain one and tries to keep weapons out of the hands of those who are deemed unfit through criminal acts or mental illnesses. If passed, this Act proves that gun regulation change is on the horizon.