Universal Gun Background Checks Shine Spotlight on Gun Stores

Gun store owners, industry trade groups, and the NRA argue over the effectiveness and benefits of gun background checks.

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San Jose Mercury News / MCT / Sipa

Kevin Pollard, 21, of Redding reloads his shotgun at a public shooting range in Redding, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2013.

To Wes Morosky, president of Duke’s Sports Shop in New Castle, Penn., the universal background check proposal now under debate in Congress would be a boon for business. “It’d keep everyone on the same playing field,” he said of proposals to require background checks for all gun sales that would put licensed dealers like his store at the center of gun culture. “And we’d charge for it.”

But not everyone agrees. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group traditionally opposed to regulation, claims most firearms dealers are opposed to universal background checks because they will increase workload and legal risk.

“The retailer is required for all the same entries and record-keeping as if they were selling the gun,” said Lawrence Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel for NSSF. “They can be dragged into product liability lawsuits, so they’re exposed on a firearm that they didn’t sell and may not have insurance for. And there are inventory issues in states with waiting periods.”

Just who wins this debate may help determine the outcome of the fight over gun control in the Senate. At stake is not just the President’s priority of establishing universal background checks for gun purchases, but the end game of a two decade battle to bar all sales of firearms to people with felony records or mental instability that has been determined to be dangerous by a judge.

Currently, only the 60% of gun buyers who shop at licensed gun dealers need to undergo background checks. Dealers must check the names of buyers against a federal database of people not allowed to buy guns. If a name clears, the federal government keeps no record of the buyer, but the gun store is required to keep a basic record of the transaction.

For the roughly 40% of guns purchased from sources other than a licensed gun dealer, including collectors and individual sellers at gun shows, no background check is required. That would change under the “universal” background check system that has been proposed by the White House and Senate Democratic leadership. In the new system, private sellers and buyers would be required to meet in person with a licensed dealer, where the dealer would check the buyer against the federal database for a fee. As with dealer purchases, a record of the sale would be retained by the licensed dealer. The federal government would still be prohibited from creating a national records database.

For the National Rifle Association, these new requirements are, nonetheless, “a step toward national gun registration” by the federal government that would take away the rights of law-abiding gun owners. “The whole thing, universal checks, is a dishonest premise,” said Wayne LaPierre, the association’s executive vice president in an appearance Sunday on NBC‘s Meet The Press. “There’s not a bill on the Hill that provides a universal check. Criminals aren’t going to be checked. They’re not going to do this.”

In an unconventional turn, gun control advocates are touting the potential benefits for dealers in embracing universal background checks due to increased foot-traffic. “It’s something that existing dealers like because they get traffic,” says John Lowe of the Brady Campaign, “A lot of dealers make most of their money off of accessories.”

The system of universal background checks envisioned on the federal level already exists in the state of California. For decades, all gun purchases have required checks against the federal database, with little incident.

Mike Klein, an owner of a gun store called Warrior One in Riverside, Cal. where state law mandates 10-day waiting periods and that all private sales be conducted through a licensed dealer, points to the success of universal background checks. “There are a lot of people who get denied — people who got in trouble when they were younger and thought it’d be clear or just wishing to get lucky,” he said. “Stuff gets caught left and right [in private sales].”

While the details of the new legislation — including the role of gun retailers — are being negotiated, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has begun preparing for debate and a vote on the proposal as part of a broader post-Newtown gun control package. It is expected to begin shortly after Congress returns from recess on April 8.