Leahy: Improving The Background Check System Is A Matter Of Common Sense

[Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spoke on the Senate Floor Monday in support of a bipartisan amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act currently before the Senate that would improve the nation’s background checks system for gun purchases. The amendment, authored by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) closes the so-called gun show loophole while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights.]

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Amendment No.715 to S.649, Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013
April 15, 2013

I want to thank Senators Manchin and Toomey for coming forward with their bipartisan amendment to close the gun show loophole and prevent criminals from obtaining firearms, while at the same time respecting and protecting the Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners.  These Senators have worked long and hard.  They have studied the issue.  They have compromised, and they have reached an agreement that I intend to support and hope that the Senate will adopt.

We have had background checks for decades.  These checks are an accepted part of the process of buying a gun.  I am among millions of responsible gun owners who have undergone a background check as part of this process.  And like millions of responsible gun owners, I understand that this check is necessary to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are dangerous to themselves and others due to mental illness.

Background checks work.  Since 1998, over 2 million sales to prohibited people have been prevented thanks to background checks.  That is 2 million times a potentially dangerous person trying to get a gun was denied a gun.  Some argue that background checks do not work because not enough people who fail the background check are later prosecuted.  Failing a background check is not in itself a crime.  Indeed, the main purpose of the background check is to prevent the prohibited person from getting the desired gun.  Although not foolproof, the background check system we have had in place has succeeded in preventing dangerous people from getting guns over 2 million times.

What we are now trying to do is improve the background check system. That is what I see the Manchin-Toomey amendment as trying to do.  We all know there is a huge loophole in our background check system.  Criminals and others prohibited from buying guns at gun stores can get around the background check requirement by going to gun shows.  I know gun store owners in Vermont. They follow the law and conduct background checks. They wonder why others who sell guns do not have to follow these same rules.  I agree with these responsible business owners.  This loophole needs to be closed. 

I have been voting to close this loophole for years.  In 1999, the Senate adopted an amendment to close the gun show loophole and passed legislation that included that provision.  That was after the tragedy at Columbine.  Regrettably, the House would not pass the bill.  The Republican leadership in the Senate at the time let the matter drop.  I hope that this time the House will join with us to close this loophole once and for all. 

The Manchin-Toomey bipartisan amendment closes the loophole in a way that does not infringe upon Second Amendment rights.  Sales at gun shows and sales using online or print advertising will now be governed by the same requirements as gun stores in Vermont and elsewhere.  This will make us safer.  It does not confiscate anyone’s gun or create a Government registry.  It does not undermine the Second Amendment.  No court has held that background checks, which have been with us for decades, violate the Second Amendment. Indeed, when the United States Supreme Court expressly held that the Second Amendment provide an individual right in the Heller case, it also said that “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill” do not violate the Second Amendment.    

The compromise these Senators have presented to us is focused on gun shows and commercial sales.  It does not require background checks for sales or gifts between spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins.  The bill does not require background checks for transfers between friends and neighbors who talk to each other and decide to sell or give each other firearms.  The bill does not require background checks for temporary transfers of guns for hunting or target shooting.  Instead, the bill requires background checks for the kind of sales that can be easily exploited by people who intend to do harm:  sales at gun shows and through online and print advertisements.

I hope that we can all agree that we need a strong background check system in order to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals.  Why would we not then try to plug the loopholes in the law that allow them to buy guns without background checks?  This is a simple matter of common sense. If we all agree that the background check system makes sense, why would we not try to improve its content and use so it can be more effective? What responsible gun owner objects to improving the background check system?

In our first Judiciary Committee hearing of the year, the first of three on gun violence proposals, I pointed out to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA that he himself testified in 1999 in favor of mandatory criminal background checks for, as he put it, “every sale at every gun show.”  At that time he went on to emphasize the NRA’s support for closing loopholes in the background check system by saying:  “No loopholes anywhere for anyone.” Of course it is common sense to close the gun show loophole.  The Senate voted to do so in 1999. We should vote to do so, again, and this time we should get it enacted.

I have noted that Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action, not filibustering or sloganeering.  This is something we can come together to accomplish.  No one can or will take our Second Amendment rights or our guns away.  They are not at risk. But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit crimes of violence.  This is something we can come together and do to make America safer and more secure.

Some have expressed frustration about the level of prosecutions under existing gun laws. And some have suggested that instead of making sensible changes to our public safety laws to prevent gun violence, Federal law enforcement officials should focus exclusively on existing laws. I share some of that frustration, but I do not agree it is a valid excuse for us to do nothing. Improvements in the enforcement of existing laws and efforts to give law enforcement officials better tools to do their jobs are not mutually exclusive; those efforts complement each other. A recent article in The Washington Times documented that gun prosecutions were in decline beginning in the Bush administration, and suggests that having a Senate-confirmed director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives would significantly help law enforcement.  Let us not be distracted from what we can do to keep Americans safe by partisan attacks on this administration or the last. 

I also want to thank Senator Schumer for all his efforts to bring us to this point.  I worked with him to make sure the legislation considered and voted on by the Judiciary Committee included provisions to improve the background check system.  He introduced a number of background check proposals.  He reached across the aisle and tried very hard to come to an agreement with Senator Coburn.  His efforts helped pave the way for the agreement that Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey were able to reach. 

I have also been encouraging the senior Senator from West Virginia in his efforts.  He has shown great leadership, sensitivity and perseverance.  I commend Senator Toomey for his willingness to join in this legislative effort.  Together they have done the Senate and the country a great service.  At the outset of the Judiciary Committee’s consideration of this issue, I encouraged Senators to bring forward their ideas, to debate that which they thought could make a difference, not just obstruct that which they opposed.  I hope those who oppose the measure put forward by Senators Manchin and Toomey will seek to be part of this debate rather than simply try to silence it.  

Improving the background check system is a matter of common sense.  Senators Manchin and Toomey have shown that it can be accomplished in a way that better protects our communities and fully respects our Second Amendment rights.  I am pleased to support this bipartisan solution.

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