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Background checks ongoing fight for NRA

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 9:07 p.m.

A friend turned foe has blocked the path of gun-control advocates and politicians looking to expand federal background checks for firearm sales.

During the two decades that Americans debated, debuted and again debated background checks for firearm sales, the National Rifle Association changed its position on the idea. Once a supporter of instant background checks, the NRA calls the system broken and vehemently argues against its expansion.

“Fix the system we have,” Andrew Arulanandam, the association's director of public affairs, said about the FBI's national background check database. “After observing that system, we have changed our minds.”

The NRA's attention this week turned to Maryland, where Gov. Martin O'Malley on Thursday signed a gun-control bill that supporters claim gives the state the toughest firearm laws in the nation. The law requires people to submit fingerprints to police to buy a handgun, outlaws 445 assault-type rifles, limits magazines to 10 bullets and bans ownership of guns by people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental facility.

The NRA intends to sue over the law, a spokeswoman said.

Opposition from the NRA killed a bill sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand background checks to all gun sales — between neighbors, among families or at gun shows — in addition to those that gun dealers must do.

Arulanandam said the bill criminalized the transfer of firearms between law-abiding citizens, drawing the NRA's ire. The bill failed to generate support in the Senate despite polls showing Americans support background checks.

Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney and executive director of the Firearms Instruction Research and Education Institute, said universal background checks may prevent people who cannot possess a gun from buying one privately from a stranger.

But gun checks would not have prevented mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut, Georgiades and others said, because background checks would not have kept guns from those shooters.

“There's one ugly truth that people are having trouble swallowing” regarding gun violence in America, Georgiades said. “The possibility that we can't do anything about it.”

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of law at Duquesne University, concedes that background checks would not stop all gun violence, but he considers them effective gun-control policy. The emphasis should be to keep guns away from unstable people, he said, and universal background checks could help accomplish that.

“There's a lot of dispute about this,” Ledewitz said. “One of the reasons (background checks) haven't been too effective is they haven't been universal. There's no reason, in theory, why gun checks won't work.”

The 1993 Brady Bill brought background checks to the federal level and prompted the FBI to establish the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 1998. In 1999, with the background check system in its infancy, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and voice, testified before Congress. Lawmakers had taken up the gun control debate after the Columbine High School shooting. At the time, LaPierre said it was reasonable to have criminal background checks for gun show sales. “No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” he said. He wanted those determined to be mentally ill to be added to the system.

“This isn't new, or a change of position, or a concession,” he said.

LaPierre did not find it to be reasonable for the government to require checks when guns change hands between legal, private citizens.

What has not changed, Arulanandam said, is the NRA's support of “behavior restrictions on firearm ownership.”

“Criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, should not have access to firearms. That's been our position as long as I can remember,” he said.

Since 1998, the federal system has run more than 169.2 million checks on prospective gun owners, according to the most recent FBI data. Despite the system denying about 1 million gun purchases, the NRA believes it is broken.

Arulanandam said not all states supply complete information to the federal government, and law enforcement agencies don't always prosecute offenders.

The NRA knows the fight against background checks is far from over. A win in the Senate is not the end, Arulanandam said.

“We consider it one battle in a very long war that will last years.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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