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February 01, 2013

ABA president urges Congress to take steps to prevent gun violence

ABA supports stronger background checks

ABA President Laurel G. Bellows urged the Senate Judiciary Committee last month to take prompt action to prevent gun violence by strengthening the nation’s gun laws through taking “reasonable, common-sense steps” that do not violate the constitutional right to bear arms or impinge on gun owner traditions and ordinary uses of firearms.

“We recognize, however, that there is no simple solution to gun violence,” Bellows said in a statement submitted for the record of a Jan. 30 hearing on the issues. “We know that steps are needed to address school violence, mental health services, and juvenile crime prevention in addition to gun safety and greater enforcement of firearm violations.”

Bellows expressed strong support for the major recommendations issued Jan. 16 by President Obama in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The president’s recommendations emerged from the findings of a gun policy task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden.     

She outlined the following crucial steps supported by the ABA.

Strengthen background check requirements and the National Instant Background Check System (NICS). Federal law has limited gun sales through licensed firearms dealers to legally qualified purchasers since 1968 and began requiring in 1993 a background check of federal and state records through the NICS prior to completion of a firearm sale. An estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of all gun sales in the United States continue to be exempt from this requirement, however, because unlicensed sellers are permitted by law to sell firearms with no background check.

Strengthen law and enforcement to prevent gun trafficking. The ABA supports legislation, S. 54 and H.R. 452, to address “straw purchases” of firearms that occur when a person who is not legally qualified to acquire a firearm or may wish to do so anonymously has someone else purchase the firearm on his or her behalf. Such straw purchases are regularly used by criminals, criminal gangs and persons disqualified by age, and they account for nearly a third of all firearms involved in federal trafficking investigations.

Limit availability of assault weapons and high-capacity clips to the U.S. military, the National Guard and law enforcement. The ABA urges swift action on legislation, introduced as S. 150 and H.R. 437, to limit the future sale and transfer of assault weapons and ammunition devices that hold more than 10 bullets. The legislation would not render currently owned assault weapons illegal but would require more careful regulation for transfer and sale by bringing those weapons and large-capacity ammunition devices under the registration requirements for fully automatic firearms under the National Firearms Act.

Although some maintain that the Second Amendment should apply to prevent any regulation of assault weapons and high-capacity clips, Bellows said the ABA believes that there are limits to Second Amendment rights, which must be balanced against other rights in serving the common welfare, including protecting the safety of children and all citizens from especially dangerous weapons.

Strengthen and fully implement the NICS. Only a portion of state mental health records are provided and integrated in the NICS system, and a recent Government Accountability Office report found that 17 states have fewer than 10 percent of their mental health records available. In addition, state records for felony convictions and domestic violence also are incomplete. Federal grant support is needed to improve the automation and transmittal of records to federal and state record repositories, Bellows said, and the ABA supports a memorandum issued by the president to require federal agencies to fully cooperate and share relevant records with the background check system.

Strengthen regulation of gun sales and transfers. The ABA recommends a number of amendments to federal law, including prohibiting sales, transfers and possession of firearms by persons convicted of violent misdemeanors, including those convicted of domestic violence and child abuse offenses.   Other suggested amendments would prohibit interstate sales by unlicensed persons of ammunition or firearm components; and require dealers, manufacturers, transporters and importers of firearms and ammunition to provide adequate and secure storage facilities to reduce theft and require reporting of all gun thefts.

During the Jan. 30 hearing, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a victim of a shooting two years ago, urged the committee in a brief statement to take action immediately.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, elaborated by emphasizing the importance of strengthening the background check system and removing limits on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations on collecting data and conducting scientific research on gun violence.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, testified that background checks will never be universal because “criminals will never submit to them.” He suggested armed security in schools and enforcement of the thousands of gun laws currently on the books.

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