Gov. Paul LePage delivered a welcome message in a recent weekly radio address: He called on the federal government to do a better job with its system of background checks for firearm purchases.
“Many people are already prohibited from buying a firearm, and the national background check system is supposed to catch them,” LePage said in the radio address. “We must ensure the background check system is working,” he added.
The system the U.S. has to screen people looking to purchase firearms is woefully insufficient.
In most states, for example, there’s no background check requirement for private firearm sales. So if someone who’s not supposed to be able to purchase a firearm fails a background check when attempting to purchase a gun from a licensed firearms dealer, that person can simply try to buy a gun through a private sale that doesn’t involve a licensed dealer.
Maine voters last year rejected a referendum measure to add this requirement to state law.
LePage opposed that measure, and his argument in the radio address was that there’s more the U.S. can do under existing law to ensure people who are legally barred from purchasing guns — including fugitives, those convicted of serious crimes, people with domestic violence convictions and those declared by judges to be mentally unfit — aren’t able to.
“Laws are useless if agencies fail to comply with them and authorities fail to enforce them,” LePage said.
The most glaring recent example was the U.S. Air Force’s failure to report the convictions of dozens of service members to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Air Force should have reported the domestic violence conviction of Devin Kelley, who killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5. He had with him three guns he had purchased from licensed firearms dealers in Texas and Colorado who conducted background checks.
In addition, many states aren’t submitting all of the mental health records they should to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
But as LePage called on the federal government to make the nation’s background check system work better, the Trump administration has been doing the exact opposite.
Without much fanfare in February, President Donald Trump signed legislation repealing an Obama-era rule that required the Social Security Administration to report to the FBI background check system Social Security recipients whom judges had determined to be mentally unfit to own guns.
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has also made the prohibition on fugitives purchasing firearms less meaningful by narrowing the definition of what it means to be a fugitive. Now, more people with outstanding arrest warrants are allowed to buy guns. Only those with arrest warrants who have crossed state lines to avoid prosecution or to avoid testifying in a criminal proceeding are considered fugitives, The Washington Post reported in October.
There’s a need for laws to make background checks universal and to renew a ban on assault weapons that lapsed in 2004, but LePage is also right to call on the federal government to do what’s already in its power, without passing new laws, to strengthen the nation’s background check system.
“We need adequate funding for background checks, and we need strict enforcement of the laws already on the books,” he said in the radio address. “We also need to ensure all mandatory reporters are submitting mental illness data.”
But as LePage calls for making FBI background checks as effective as possible in the situations where firearm prohibitions already apply, the Trump administration is doing what it can to undermine them, allowing more people to slip through the cracks — people who could become the next mass shooter, the next person to bring harm to his or her own family or the next person to take his or her own life.
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