If We Fail to Demand Universal Background Checks, Then We’ve Failed Ourselves As a Nation

guninconvenienceJust a few days after the horrific tragedy at the Aurora movie theater last July, I had a short telephone conversation with Anna Moser, the grandmother of 6 year old victim Veronica Moser. The call was business-related and private so I won’t get into specifics, but the deep pain in every word she spoke reverberated through me with a striking sense of despair. It left me with the uniquely terrible feeling of wanting to reach through the phone and hug her, but at the same time knowing that wouldn’t bring her granddaughter back. I’m sure many who have found themselves in a similar situation can relate to this, but it’s something I had never experienced before.

Fast forward just 6 months to December 14th, 2012 and the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut which took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults. As a parent, even the thought that something so tragic can happen when your children are supposed to be having fun, learning and enjoying their youth, is enough to leave you without words. Yet it continues to happen, on a large scale and on a smaller scale all across the country, and it disgusts me how little we’ve done to try to stop it. President Obama recently said “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten” what happened in Newton. While I agree with this, I must also add to it–shame on us if we can’t even come together on something as simple and necessary as universal background checks.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 88% support for universal background checks, including 85% support among gun owners nationwide. A McClatchy-Marist poll from earlier this month found similar results, with 84% supporting universal background checks, and 81% of gun owners supporting as well.  Please tell me, how often is it than 80-90% of this country can agree on anything? You’d have a hard time finding that kind of support for apple pie, or enjoying a baseball game in the sun. Yet here we are in a situation where the vast majority of our nation agrees this should be done, but our elected officials still can’t seem to find the proper competence to make it happen. 

It’s clear that the system we have now is just not working. Take the case of convicted killer Christian Phillip Oberender, who murdered his mother with a shotgun blast in 1995. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis broke the story earlier this year on how he was able to recently acquire an arsenal of 13 guns, including an AK-47, a Tommy gun and a .50-caliber Desert Eagle. He also wrote a note to his late mother, which read in part–“I am so homicide. I think about killing all the time. The monster want out. He only been out one time and someone die.”

In researching what happened, the Star Tribune exposed an even deeper problem with our background checks system. From the story:

Even though Oberender killed his mother with a firearm, even though he was committed to the state hospital in St. Peter as mentally ill and dangerous more than a decade ago, he was able to obtain a permit to purchase firearms last May. That piece of paper gave Oberender, now 32, the ability to walk into any licensed Minnesota retailer and buy any assault weapon or pistol on the rack.

Dozens of other Minnesotans judged by a court to be mentally ill have also found that designation no barrier to obtaining deadly weapons.

A Star Tribune review of state court records found case after case in which individuals deemed mentally ill in judicial proceedings later wound up in possession of guns and accused of violent crimes.

At least 84 people have been charged since 2000 with illegal gun possession or assault with a dangerous weapon even though they had previously been committed by a judge as mentally ill. Of that group, 29 were charged with multiple counts of weapons possession and nine were considered by a judge to be mentally ill and dangerous.

Additionally, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has more than 168,000 “suspense files” — records on Minnesotans who have been arrested since 1990 but whose files are so incomplete that the state can’t determine if they should have the right to buy guns.

How many more wake-up calls do we need to finally understand that we need to fix this? If the pipe under your sink suddenly sprung a gaping hole, you wouldn’t continue to wash dishes for months while letting water leak out over your entire kitchen, eventually growing mold and probably spawning a new species of fish. You’d do something to stop it. Even if you couldn’t permanently fix it right away, you’d do something to at least stop your floor from getting flooded until you could get it properly repaired.

Mark Kelly, husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, expressed the thoughts of many when he appeared on Fox News this morning. “I think any bill that does not include a universal background check is a mistake,” he said. “It’s the most common sense thing we can do to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from having access to weapons.”

He’s absolutely right–we’ve got to get this done, and we’ve got to get it done properly. The sink’s been leaking for years, and the chewing gum we’ve had in place to stop it got washed away in the flood. Some have said that HIPAA privacy rules would prevent any sort of universal background check from being implemented properly anyway in regards to mental health history, so it’s a lost cause. That’s a defeatist attitude which has been fed by the NRA, and the last thing we should be doing is giving in to it. We’ve supposedly elected adults to Congress–it’s time they stop acting like NRA shills and start doing their damn jobs. Reform what needs to be reformed–fix any potential snags with HIPAA, and sew up the kinds of loopholes that allow the Christian Phillip Oberenders among us to acquire ridiculous amounts of firepower with ill intent. Implement a properly functioning universal background check process on every gun sale–whether it be a private sale, at a gun show or inside a Wal-Mart. At most, it’s a minor inconvenience–5 minutes of paperwork and an acknowledgement that your records will be looked at. If you’re a law-abiding gun owner, knowing that this simple step could possibly save even one child’s life should be enough to have not only your ultimate support–but have you calling your representatives as well and urging them to get this done.

Thomas Barr

Thomas Barr

Thomas Barr is a writer, editor and activist who's passionate about progressive ideals, with extra attention given to the fight for universal health care, medical marijuana, and saving our nation from decades of devastating trickle-down policies. Thomas is also a dedicated advocate for Type 1 diabetes research and education.
Be sure to check out his archives on Forward Progressives for more of his viewpoints.
Thomas Barr


Facebook comments

  • Terrance

    In most states this already is happening, we need to get the guns out of crazy peoples hands, if you have a mental illness I’m sorry but you cant have a gun

  • Matthew B-M

    This is all good baby-steps, but the myopic view of the necessity to own firearms is actually the thing that really needs combatting. The escalation of minor conflict by virtue of a firearm being waved around is something that hurts society as a whole. As a reporter, you should understand that while Newtown and Aurora and Oak Creek and the rest of the “mass shootings” stand out, the fact that there have been around 3,500 people killed by firearms since the “massacre” on Dec 14th 2012 (so ~0.001% of the population), way more than the 28 people who died at Adam Lanza’s hands (again, as reporters they generally use the 26 number, which doesn’t include Lanza himself, or his mother).

    When watching Alex Jones during some of the early gun debates, and the various people who posted videos talking about how “the gummint ain’t gonna come and take away mah guns” or “mah second uhmendment raaghts”, one has to sit back and wonder a bit about what the line for considering someone as unsafe to own a firearm is and ought to be. Just passing a background check is a very good start, and the supposed adults in Congress ought to manage that, but realistically, America needs more introspection on the fact that the number and power of guns on the streets are more of a problem than they care to admit, and that things like concealed-carry, stand your ground and other such actually make citizens less, rather than more safe.

    • Charles Vincent

      Guns aren’t the problem people are the problem stop trying to use the government to relieve people of their responsibility.

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  • MelHaun Sr

    Very good insight. Like you, I suspect the gun culture is more of a problem than most want to admit.
    Making us safer? I think not.

  • Michael

    We already have a universal backround check requirement. It was instituted under the Brady Bill. Get your facts straight. The only differences between states is wether they use “Insta-check” or not and wether they have a waiting period.

    • khallacy

      Go to a gun show and see if you have to pass one. That’s the loophole. You don’t have to have one. So any crazy off the street can go in and buy one. Guess if this happened to one of your family then you would agree with it.

  • Matthew B-M

    Michael, I’m glad you posted this on April 1st, otherwise I’d have thought you were just thick. The reality is that there isn’t a *UNIVERSAL* background check requirement, as anyone who classes as a private vendor is exempt from having to perform a background check on the buyers. Unfortunately, “universal” is a binary, there are no shades of grey there. You either have universal background checks (in which case that includes private vendors) or you don’t (otherwise referred to as the “gun-show loophole”). Take your pick.

    • Charles Vincent

      There is no gun show loop hole all FFL dealers at the gun show are required by federal law to perform a criminal background check on all sales. Have you ever even been to a gun show? Criminals don’t go to guns how’s to buy guns they steal them from other people or they take a walk to the street to their friend ak joes and buy one for cheaper than they could at a gun show.

    • Fuzzle


  • Walter

    First, let me state that an overwhelming majority agreement doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the correct thing to do. That is a logical fallacy and needs to be pointed out. That said, I am not against universal background checks. All the firearms in my collection were purchased after a background check and see no problem with it. That’s not to say that the reservations brought up by persons opposed to those checks aren’t valid. It is quite possible that that information could, at some point, lead to a confiscation scenario, perhaps as a prelude to something more insidious: the forced forfeiture of other constitutional rights. At the present, I do not share that concern. In my opinion, the problem with background checks arises when the states fail in their obligations to report to the feds persons with mental issues who should not be allowed to purchase guns. It has been shown that some states have been negligent in this regard.

  • Fiona Mackenzie

    In the end, the hysterical panic reaction of the NRA to universal background checks may have its origin in Wayne LaPierre’s history of being found mentally unfit. Think about it: what if LaPierre had to undergo a background check?

  • Charles Vincent

    Universal background checks require a national firearms registry in order to be effective. That is direct from the DOJ to president Obama. Firearms registries are prohibited by federal law and have been since 1986.

    We have had a background check system for checking to make sure people are not criminals since the passage of the Brady bill in 1993. This system covers all firearms sales i.e. all sales from a gun shop, gun show, and Internet sales require the dealer to use the nics background check on all sales.