A bipartisan initiative led by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) aims to create new legislation to improve the background check database used for gun purchases. The lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would add more information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, offer states incentives for sending information on criminal activity to the database, and punish federal agencies for not submitting information to the system.
The Senate deal comes after the Sutherland Springs mass shooting in Texas earlier this month when a gunman opened fire in the First Baptist Church, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others. Federal law prohibited the gunman from buying or possessing firearms because of a domestic violence conviction while serving in the U.S. Air Force. But the Air Force failed to record the conviction in the FBI National Crime Information Center database.
The gunman had also been admitted to and escaped from a mental health facility before the military discharged him for bad conduct. (This is not to be confused with a dishonorable discharge, as online commentators have mistakenly claimed, which would have been another reason federal law prohibited him from possessing firearms.) His slip through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has pushed lawmakers from both parties to fix what Sens. Cornyn and Murphy call a deeply flawed system.
The proposed bipartisan bill would give states federal grants to submit in-depth reports of criminal and mental health histories to the background check system. Currently, states are not required to do that unless their own laws mandate it. It would also hold federal agencies, such as the U.S. Armed Forces, accountable for not submitting proper records to the system. Lapses in following protocol could result in the withholding of bonuses for political appointees.
A poll of 1,577 voters nationwide by Quinnipiac University found that more than half of those polled supported stricter regulation of ammunition sales and a ban on gun modifications like bump stocks, which can turn a semi-automatic rifle more into a fully automatic weapon. In October, the gunman in the Las Vegas mass shooting killed 58 people and injured 546 others when he fired hundreds of rounds onto a country music festival. Police found him dead in his hotel room with 12 guns modified with bump stocks.
The poll also found that more people believe the difficulty of getting mental health care is a bigger cause of mass shootings than the ease of buying guns. In the gun control debate, where people have thrown various solutions in the ring, mental health has been one of the topics in the forefront. President Trump, for example, described the Sutherland Springs mass shooting as an issue of mental health, not guns.
But conclusive research backs neither lack of gun restrictions nor mental health as reasons for mass shootings, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said to NPR. The United States does not treat gun violence like a public health crisis. When a new disease, like zika or measles, enters the country, the United States has a mechanism to track and research it. But the same can't be said for firearm-related deaths, Benjamin said.
"Firearms are a tool, and ... a consumer product," he explained to NPR. "And unlike other consumer products, we're not working hard to make that consumer product safer." The doctor cited cars as an example, where seat belts and banning texting while driving are in place to reduce motor accidents while keeping cars available.
Meanwhile, the upcoming bipartisan bill will placate people on both sides of the gun control debate who are calling for the current background check system to be better enforced.