Mass Shootings

Trump Wants 'Comprehensive Background Checks' for Gun Buyers. What Does That Mean?

A screening system can be "comprehensive" without being smart, fair, or effective.


White House

Today on Twitter, Donald Trump announced that he "will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health." I'm not sure what he means by that, and I'm not sure he knows what he means by that. But it is worth considering a few possible interpretations and whether they make sense as a response to last week's mass shooting at a high school in Florida.

By "comprehensive background checks," Trump might mean "universal background checks," a policy advocated by his predecessor that would require FBI clearance for every gun transfer and not just for those involving federally licensed dealers, as under current law. The perpetrator of the Florida attack, like most mass shooters, did not have a criminal or psychiatric record that would have legally disqualified him from owning a gun, and he passed a background check when he bought the rifle he used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Requiring background checks for private transactions clearly would not thwart mass shooters who do not meet the criteria for blocking a sale, which is typically the case.

Trump might be talking about expanding those criteria. A gun violence restraining order (GVRO), for example, prohibits people from purchasing or possessing firearms when a judge decides they probably pose a significant danger to themselves or others. A GVRO can be sought by police officers or by certain people who know the target, a category that is quite broad in California and even broader in Washington. It probably would have to be broader still for a GVRO law to have made a difference in Florida. New York takes a different approach, requiring mental health professionals to report anyone they deem "likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to self or others." The subjects of such reports can expect to lose any guns they own, along with the right to purchase them in the future.

While laws like these could conceivably prevent a mass shooting, the standards of evidence they use and the incentives they create mean that the vast majority of people whose Second Amendment rights they revoke will be innocent and harmless. But that is par for the course under current federal law, which bans gun ownership by broad classes of people based on criteria that have little or nothing to do with their propensity for violence. Anyone convicted of a felony, violent or not, loses the constitutional right to armed self-defense. So does anyone who illegally uses a controlled substance, including millions of cannabis consumers, even if they live in states that have legalized marijuana. So does anyone who was ever subjected to involuntary psychiatric treatment, even if he never showed any inclination to hurt other people. So does anyone who is in this country without the government's permission, including millions of peaceful and productive residents who have lived in the United States for years.

In 2004 the Justice Department's inspector general examined cases in which gun purchases were approved and it was later discovered that the buyers were not legally allowed to own firearms. The resulting report noted that there were often delays in retrieving weapons from prohibited buyers, partly because "ATF special agents did not consider most of the prohibited persons who had obtained guns to be dangerous and therefore did not consider it a priority to retrieve the firearm promptly." If disqualified buyers are not dangerous, why are they disqualified?

Because the criteria for blocking gun sales are already arbitrary, unjust, and unreasonably broad, any proposal to expand them further should be viewed with skepticism. Likewise proposals to "improve" background checks by making the databases on which they rely more comprehensive, which might be what Trump, who also talks about "strengthening Background Checks," has in mind.

If that means making sure the records of people who have committed violent crimes are included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), it would be a genuine improvement and might even help prevent a mass shooting. The perpretator of last year's massacre at a church in Texas, for example, was convicted by a court martial of crimes that legally disqualified him from buying guns. He passed a background check anyway, because the Air Force neglected to share his information with NICS. Legislation aimed at improving the sharing of such information could make a difference, although someone bent on violence who had a disqualifying criminal record could still find a way to obtain guns without undergoing a background check.

But if "strengthening background checks" means adding information about people who have never demonstrated any violent tendencies, it would only make an arbitrary and unjust screening system more arbitary and unjust. If the aim is to prevent would-be murderers from obtaining guns, it hardly makes sense to flag more nonviolent offenders, more medical marijuana users, or more people who years ago underwent court-ordered treatment because someone thought they might be suicidal. Background checks can be "comprehensive" without being smart, fair, or effective.

NEXT: Trump, Dems, Business Want a Gas Tax Increase. The President's Economic Advisers Suggest a Better Idea.

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  1. Sounds like part of the NYSafe Act.

    A psych provider and can notify the state which flags you if they think you are dangerous.

  2. Let’s everyone take a step back and realize what’s going on here. The Democrats want whatever they can get in the march toward firearm prohibition. The Republicans want whatever they can get to shut the gun grabbers up while not riling the base in advance of midterm elections and their primaries. Trump wants whatever will make him look the best. No one really cares what the “do something” is called or what it purportedly or actually does so long as they can achieve their respective goal here.

    1. That sums it up nicely.

  3. I’m not sure what he means by that, and I’m not sure he knows what he means by that.

    So far, so good.

    But it is worth considering a few possible interpretations and whether they make sense

    Oh, and you were so close! No, sorry, the correct answer is that it is not worth considering any possible interpretations of random shit that falls out of Trump’s face when nobody – especially Trump himself – has no idea what the fuck he’s talking about.

    I mean, if you’re going to write a whole article based on imagining what he might have meant, why not a whole article based on imaging something he might have said? Here, I’ll give you a writing prompt: Imagine Trump said “Does anybody else smell a strong odor of burnt toast? And why does the whole left side of my body feel numb?” Write an article about what that might possibly mean.

    1. Plate o’ shrimp.

  4. What does Trump mean?

    Trump means to create a thick fog of terms like ‘background checks’ and ‘mental health’ and ‘comprehensive’ and ‘bump stock ban’ and all kinds of things like that while ending the whole ‘gun-free school zone’ thing in the background.

    Because, short of wiping out not just every iota of knowledge about guns, but also the physics that allow guns to work in the first place, armed people in schools(besides ‘resource’ officers) is the only thing that will actually help.

  5. Perhaps they just need to require a secret security clearance for everyone requesting permission to buy a gun. That would add 8-10k to each purchase plus maintenance or refiling costs. The market impact of that would accomplish their gun control goals as the masses would not be able to maintain accreditation yet the elites would still be able to have armed professions at their side.

    1. “”yet the elites would still be able to have armed professions at their side.”‘

      I haven’t seen liberals argue against this. Which I find ironic since they often complain about class privilege.

  6. We need to put an end to Gun Free Zone Soft Targets that have become killing zones for the disarmed and defenseless. The American public is coming around to this point of view.

    Washington Post-ABC News Poll Feb 2018

    Q: (You may have heard about the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida this week.) Do you think this event could or could not have been prevented by allowing school teachers to carry guns?
    A: Could have been prevented: 42%

    And teachers have heard the message.

    Sheriff offers free CCW class for teachers, 250 sign up in 24 hours…..o-teachers

  7. Well, you see, if you have comprehensive background checks, you know who to attack when you grab the guns.

    I may be the only person to admit in public that I wonder exactly what the hell the progressives have in mind to do to us that they know it would actually trigger armed rebellion. There is no other explanation for the anti bill of rights fervor. They are up to something so massive and horrible that we cannot be allowed to have any chance at all of opposing it.

  8. I’m not a fan of rewarding people who think they can trash talk you to the extreme, then think they have a right to demand you do their bidding.

    Trump should come out and say, to the people that call me Hitler and other bad names continuously, who think I am not legitimately the president, I owe you nothing.

    1. Trump is definitely the victim here.

      1. Not calling Trump a victim.

        But if people want to bad mouth you to no end, then fuck em.

    2. That’s what executors of the state should tell the people: “I owe you nothing.”

      1. “”That’s what executors of the state should tell the people:”‘

        Not the people, just a subset of the people that think you’re a piece of shit.

  9. I think he means that he heard someone use that phrase and he thought it sounded powerful and important.

  10. Trump Wants ‘Comprehensive Background Checks’ for Gun Buyers. What Does That Mean?

    First and foremost, it means Tony is gonna corpse-fuck this thread so hard in about an hour.

  11. The question is: why do the Russians want us to have background checks?

    Clearly, this is all Putin’s plan to take over the….


    never mind.

    1. Putin has seen Red Dawn, I see.

  12. Now that Trump’s got this extreme vetting of prospective immigrants all figured out, presumably he’ll apply the same techniques to background checks.

    1. With open borders and due process equality under the law, it’s the only reasonable (drink) libertarian thing to do.

  13. Trump Wants ‘Comprehensive Background Checks’ for Gun Buyers. What Does That Mean?

    It’s like extreme vetting, only for white people.

    1. Eh, I’d bet on fewer non-whites being able to buy guns.

  14. Poor Jake Sullum can’t even play 2D chess.

  15. Correction: Trump said publicly: “will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health.”

    Which means the NRA will block this and that is good. Trump “tried” though.

    Background checks are unconstitutional.

  16. Soon the world will consist entirely of mass murdering psychotics, security agents chasing after them trying to stop them, and me – working my ass off day in and day out to subsidize the bill for the latest ‘must have’ technology for ‘early intervention and treatment’ for ‘mass killer psychosis’ and ‘Comprehensive Background Checks’ databases for ‘at risk’ agents. And if I balk at paying the bill, everyone will stop trying to kill each other and cry, “MURDERER!”

  17. Trump will go which ever way the wind is blowing–and blow as hard as the wind.

  18. In this instance, President Trump is in error. There should be no background checks. They are likely to keep innocent citizens for keeping and bearing arms just as some people have been kept from flying. For example, the late Senator Teddy Kennedy was once placed on a no-fly list even though he had not even been charged for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, whom he allowed to drown at Chappaquidick or for treason for his promotion of the 1965 Immigration Act. Nobody should be deprived of his God given, constitutionally guaranteed rights without a trial.

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