Saving Lives with Universal Background Checks

August 3, 2017Alyssa Berkson

Roughly 30,000 people die each year in the United States due to gun related violence, the most of any other nation by far.  I wish I were surprised when I read about a new mass shooting, but we have gotten to a point where they’ve become a normal part of our lives.  Rather than being sad or even startled, I only feel disappointed that we haven’t worked harder to solve the epidemic of gun violence.  While the national conversation following a shooting often shifts toward discussion of how we can improve “gun control,” we avoid addressing the real problem.  The goal shouldn’t be to control the number of firearms people have, but rather to seek solutions to prevent gun violence in the first place.

One solution that has been proposed by many gun violence prevention groups such as The Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Americans for Responsible Solutions is universal background checks with every purchase of a firearm.  Currently, about 22% of guns are obtained without background checks, particularly from unlicensed dealers or private sellers.  This means that people who should not have access to guns, such as convicted felons, people with mental illness, and domestic abusers can access deadly weapons in this “private” process.   The goal of universal background checks is not to take guns away from responsible gun owners, but to prevent dangerous people from getting guns in the first place, thus preventing potentially harmful acts.

Background checks that have been implemented already have proven to be effective.  In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, which put criminal background checks in place at federally licensed gun dealers.  In 1994, 40% of guns were purchased without background checks, much higher than today’s rate of 22%.  According to the Brady Campaign, more than three million gun sales were stopped by Brady background checks. Instances of gun violence and gun deaths also decreased after the implementation of the Brady Bill.  For instance, since the bill’s implementation, 39% fewer police officers were murdered with handguns, 38% fewer women were shot and killed by their intimate partners, and 49% fewer people committed suicide with guns.  On average, states that have background check legislation have 53% fewer police officers killed by guns, 47% fewer women killed by an intimate partner with a gun, and 47% fewer gun suicides. 

While we have seen much progress from this bill, we still have a great deal of progress to make.  We must keep working until these background checks are universally implemented, including in online purchases as well as purchases at gun shows.  We must keep working until not only criminal background checks occur, but also background checks for those on the no-fly list and those with mental illness.  We must keep working until there is no longer fear of gun violence in our communities.  This may seem daunting, but as Pirkei Avot 2:21 states, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”  It is our collective responsibility to continue the work that has already begun with Brady Background Checks.

There are currently nineteen states that have their own legislation regarding universal background checks.  The ultimate goal would be for these laws to be more widespread and even implemented at a federal level to ascertain increased safety nationally.  Accept the responsibility and prevent blood being spilled: call your senators and urge them to implement legislation enforcing universal background checks on gun purchases.  Also, follow this link to the Religious Action Center’s action alert regarding this issue.

Alyssa Berkson is a rising junior at Brandeis University, majoring in Linguistics and Hispanic studies, and minoring in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.  This summer, she interned at the Violence Policy Center.

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