On my 20th birthday, I sat hunched over my notebook, pen furiously mutilating the paper because I could not believe it had happened again. The previous day, Oct. 1, Christopher Harper-Mercer — armed with six guns — had opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. He killed nine people before turning the gun on himself.
After the distraction of birthday hugs and kisses had subsided, I went to my room alone, clutching my pen and paper as I desperately tried to make sense of yet another brutal and arbitrary mass murder. The unpredictability of these massacres forced me to dwell upon how someone I knew — or even I — could have been one of the victims. I was distraught.
While I was bothered that yet another group of innocent people had tragically lost their lives, I was deeply unsettled by the fact that this — this senseless mass murder by a single individual — was happening again and through the same means: a gun. As a citizen of the country with the highest per capita rate of firearm-related homicides of all developed countries, I was both ashamed and incredibly frustrated. The liters of blood that have been spilled — irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity and status — have proven insufficient in bringing forth some form of legal change to prevent gun violence. Right-wingers allege that these shootings are a result of nationwide mental health issues, while leftists claim it is a consequence of negligent gun-control laws. With each shooting, both sides seem to become increasingly firm in their arguments and ever more opposed to having productive conversation that could lead to a solution.
A popular proposition is the adoption of a law requiring universal background checks on all prospective buyers, as currently only licensed gun dealers are required to do so. What many don’t know is that gun dealers are required to be licensed only if they are defined as being “engaged in the business” of selling guns “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit.” Dealers that “occasionally sell as a hobby” are not required to have licenses and are therefore not required to perform background checks. This means that if you live anywhere that isn’t California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon or Rhode Island — which have already made universal background checks mandatory — unlicensed dealers can sell as many guns as they want to whomever they want without performing background checks or registering the sold firearms.
Even when sellers do background checks, the system through which they are completed — the National Instant Criminal Background Check, or NICS — is far from perfect. In the wake of the numerous mass shootings over the last 10 years, it has actually proven incredibly inadequate in preventing guns from falling into the wrong, sweaty palms.
As background checks currently function, you will be rejected from purchasing a gun only if you have been convicted of a crime that carried a sentence of more than one year or a misdemeanor that carried a sentence of more than two years, you are a fugitive, you are a verified addict, you have been diagnosed as mentally ill, you reside in the United States illegally, you have been dishonorably discharged from the military, you had or have a restraining order against you, you were convicted of domestic violence and/or you have renounced your U.S. citizenship.
While the criteria may seem broad in scope, they are actually full of potential loopholes, as demonstrated by the fact that the shooters responsible for some of the most gruesome mass murders since 2009 obtained their weapons after receiving a background check from a licensed gun dealer despite falling into one or more of the categories listed above.
Furthermore, the efficiency of NICS depends entirely upon state entities to submit criminal and mental health records, a task not always done quickly or at all. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was able to buy a gun despite being declared mentally ill two years prior to the shooting, because his mental health records were never submitted to the system, as it was not a state requirement. What is even more disconcerting is that even if mental health and criminal records are submitted to the background-check system efficiently, it does not guarantee they will be found during the process. Dylann Roof of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting should have been barred from purchasing a firearm because of his previous arrest for possession of Suboxone, a prescription street drug, but the FBI agent conducting the check failed to obtain a police report from the incident.
The NICS prides itself on taking only about a minute to process. If a background check takes more than three business days to process, however, then there is a federal law that allows the background check to be annulled completely and the gun to be sold to the prospective buyer. This law is what put a gun into the hands of Jiverly Wong, the shooter who killed 13 of his former classmates one morning at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York.
Furthermore, perhaps the largest fault of the NICS is the criteria it does not account for. For example, instances of erratic and violent misbehavior within school or the workplace will not be revealed in a background check unless a police report has been filed. This is how mass shooters Christopher Harper-Mercer, Vester Lee Flanagan II, Ivan Antonio Lopez, Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza and many others had the ability to purchase guns despite having a history of unstable and violent behavior. This has caused many to propose that a psychological screening should be an additional requirement for the purchase of guns, as it can quickly detect signs of impulsivity and aggression as well as warning signs of homicidal and suicidal impulses.
The NICS is a system that direly needs to be refined and amended, but making universal background checks a federal law may be the first preventative step in regards to gun violence. It would at least communicate to Americans that the lives lost because of mass shootings — 305 have occurred in a year that isn’t even over yet — are at least worth the compromise of some for the benefit of all.
As President Barack Obama stated in one of his most powerful, frustration-ridden statements on the morning of the Umpqua Community College shooting, “We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.” If the United States remains stagnant on its improvement of gun-control laws, it will continue to be a country unique for its repetitive mass murders at the hands of its own people and will find itself fulfilling its traditional motto of e pluribus unum — “out of many, one” in more ways than it would like.