Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch signed onto a bipartisan bill Thursday that would bolster the federal database for firearms background checks — a modest legislative response that comes after the mass shooting in Nevada last month and the one in Texas this month.
“Our proposal will help prevent future tragedies by facilitating better information-sharing to prevent the sale of arms to those who would do us harm,” the senior GOP senator said. Hatch’s support lends significant Republican heft to the measure.
The bill aims to better enforce the existing law that requires state and federal agencies to report criminal and mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used to determine eligibility for those looking to buy firearms. Law-enforcement departments that comply would be fast-tracked for federal grants. Those that don’t could face penalties.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas unveiled the legislation, known as the Fix NICS Act, less than two weeks after a gunman opened fire at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people and wounding at least 20 others.
After the attack, the U.S. Air Force said it failed to enter the shooter’s domestic-violence conviction into the background check database — which could have potentially stopped him from purchasing the military-style rifle he used, according to an Associated Press report.
“Just one record that’s not properly reported can lead to tragedy, as the country saw last week in Sutherland Springs, Texas,” said Cornyn, who has opposed gun control in the past. “This bill aims to help fix what’s become a nationwide, systemic problem so we can better prevent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms.”
The proposal has the backing of four Republican and four Democratic senators, as well as from the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The conservative National Rifle Association has not announced any opposition.
Strengthening and updating the background system is a narrow step as the nation debates more stringent gun laws. The new bill builds on a measure from 2007, following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, by asking states to create implementation plans for compliance.
But it doesn’t go far enough to penalize the agencies that don’t satisfy the requirements, suggests Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and one of that state’s staunchest gun-rights advocates.
“The only incentive is that if they don’t report then the heads of the departments don’t get bonuses,” he said. “It doesn’t quite hold them accountable.”
There’s no saying how many cases on a federal level don’t make it into the database. Aposhian believes it could be as high as 25 percent of domestic-violence convictions with just the Air Force.
“We only find out about that when there’s a failure in the system,” he said.
In Utah, the Bureau of Criminal Identification is the clearinghouse for background checks and recorded more than 1,093 firearms purchase denials so far this year (most for felony violations and many for domestic violence). Cornyn’s bill would create a domestic abuse and violence prevention initiative, upping the funding for states to share more accurate and up-to-date information from criminal records.
Hatch praised the measure Thursday as a “common-sense solution” that would fill a reporting gap in the background check database and “keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of felons, fugitives, drug addicts, persons with serious mental illness, and other prohibited persons.”