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Let's Close the Gun Show Loophole

Weapons: Senate proposal doesn't do enough to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

May 19, 1999|JANET RENO | Janet Reno is the attorney general of the United States

The U.S. Senate has a historic opportunity to make our streets and communities safer by closing the loophole that lets felons, fugitives and other prohibited people buy deadly weapons at gun shows without Brady background checks. Last week, the Senate passed an amendment that not only fails to close the loophole but creates new ones, letting criminals redeem their guns from pawnbrokers without background checks, weakening the Brady checks that currently are made at gun shows and, for the first time in more than 30 years, allowing federal firearms dealers to cross state lines to sell guns.

I have watched this debate unfold with sadness, but I remain committed to working with the Senate on this issue. In 1993, we worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass the Brady law, which has prevented more than 250,000 felons and others who should not have guns from getting them. I am hopeful that we can regain this spirit of bipartisanship and, together, take the common-sense step of expanding the Brady law's protections to gun shows.

So far, the Senate has passed two gun show amendments, but neither one actually closes the gun show loophole. Although the second proposal is in some ways better than the original, regrettably--and contrary to some reports--the modified amendment leaves the most dangerous loopholes of the original amendment untouched and adds at least one more, by weakening the Brady checks currently done at gun shows.

While the new proposal would require some buyers to get background checks at gun shows, it would not ensure that all such sales go through a check. Moreover, it cuts back the time that law enforcement has to complete a Brady background check from three business days to 24 hours, even though the court records that are sometimes needed to finish the check are unavailable on weekends when most gun shows take place. This increases the chances that criminals will be able to buy weapons at weekend gun shows, because if the background check cannot be completed within 24 hours, the criminal can get the gun. Although more than 70% of Brady background checks can be completed within minutes, some require law enforcement officers to track down additional records.

With all of the flaws and loopholes created by this amendment, even in its modified version, is there a better alternative? Fortunately, there is. Last November, President Clinton directed Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and me to make recommendations on closing the gun show loophole. We published a report in January that lays out a streamlined approach using federally licensed firearms dealers to do all the background checks at gun shows, even for unlicensed sellers. We also proposed a way to get limited information about the makes and models of guns sold so that we would have the ability to trace the guns if they were later used in a crime. In contrast, the amendment passed Friday will decrease our tracing ability, because checks will be done by people who have no obligation to cooperate with tracing requests.

Our proposal allows gun shows as we know them to continue but ensures that no one who is barred from having a gun can buy one at a gun show. The carefully drafted bill by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) follows many of our recommendations.

There is still time for the Senate to revisit this important issue and adopt legislation that plugs the gun show loophole once and for all. We want to work with Congress to develop sound, workable and effective proposals to close loopholes in our gun laws. The current amendment, even as modified, moves us in the wrong direction.

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