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NRA president: Universal background checks are 'burdensome'

Published January 31, 2013 4:07 pm

Gun violence • David Keene says the debate hasn't changed much in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
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Washington • The head of the National Rifle Association agrees that more work should be done to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill but that a national tragedy isn't the reason to ram through more firearm restrictions.

NRA President David Keene told reporters Thursday that there are ways to help prevent mass shootings, but that limiting the rights of law-abiding Americans isn't the answer.

Keene, speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, said he backs the call to action by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 and still struggles to speak.

"She said something needs to be done and I think we all agree with that," Keene said. "It's not that there's a great number of these things that happened but if there are measures that can be taken to deal with the sort of mass shootings that happened at Newtown, on the one hand, and gun crime on the other, then those steps ought to be taken."

Keene and the NRA have made the rounds with the news media and with Congress to defend gun rights in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting where 20 children and six educators were killed.

On Thursday, Keene said his 4.5-million-member group would fight against universal background checks — calling them a hindrance to those who want to follow the law — but would advocate for fixing that system and to improve the process to keep mentally ill people from obtaining guns.

It's the same argument the NRA has made before, and Keene noted that he doesn't see much change in the debate.

"I think that our opponents hope this time is different, in the sense that they hope they can use emotion to achieve an anti-firearms agenda that they haven't been able to achieve in the past," Keene said. "But I've always operated, not just in my current incarnation but in previous incarnations, on the assumption that people are smarter than politicians, and that common sense ultimately prevails."

Keene did note that it may be "relatively easy" to add background checks at gun shows, but it would be "excessively burdensome" to make all private sales go through the screening.

"I do think you get to a point where you're getting nothing as a result of it and while it sounds good, it doesn't work," Keene said.

However, during a Senate hearing this week, Baltimore County, Md., Police Chief James Johnson testified that the lack of background checks in private sales is a "major problem."

He cited statistics showing that in one year, 6.6 million gun transactions occurred without such a check, a move, he said, that was akin to allowing 40 percent of airplane passengers to skip security checkpoints.

"Background checks work," Johnson said, adding that they stopped nearly 2 million prohibited purchases between 1994 and 2009. "We already have a national background check system in place. Therefore, extending a background check to all firearms purchases can easily be implemented, and it should be without delay."

tburr@sltrib.com