Gun control laws don't matter if we fail to enforce them

Sunday , November 12, 2017 - 4:00 AM3 comments

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Bad things happen. They happen so often, in fact, that an excremental expletive is often used on bumper stickers. S--- happens.

But we live in a society that uses the written word for more than just clichés on SUVs. We use the written word to make sure bad things don’t happen. Our successes have been grand, so our failures seem particularly glaring.

A week ago, 26 people were killed in Sutherland, Texas, in yet another mass shooting. The written word of the law failed to stop the bloodshed. Every mass shooting, every terrorist attack and every murder have one thing in common: the actions are all against the law. The statutes against murder aren’t debated or challenged. Unfortunately, however, the laws against murder are also insufficient to stop the killing.

Last week’s shooting felt particularly painful because it was also the result of a violation of federal gun control laws and regulations. From everything I’ve read, the guns and ammunition used in the attack were purchased after an approved background check that shouldn’t have been allowed. This means the gun seller did his job, checked the purchaser’s background and, finding nothing, sold him a assault rifle that was used in the attack.

What the gun seller didn’t know was that the information in the background check was completely inaccurate. A 2012 domestic violence conviction that would have barred the purchase wasn’t in the database due to a reporting error by the Air Force. Also not in the database, in part because it wasn’t required, was that the killer had previously been sanctioned for trying to smuggle firearms onto a military base and threatening the lives of his commanding officers. This led to an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility from which he had temporarily escaped before being brought back by the police. If reported, this too would have blocked his purchase.

Another thing the background check didn’t show was that the killer had failed to obtain a license to carry a handgun in Texas in 2015 because of a cruelty to animals charge that he did not disclose in his license application. In one of the most gun-toting, gun-loving state in the Union, this man was prohibited under existing Texas laws from obtaining a license to carry a handgun.

All the laws, rules and regulations were in place to make sure this dangerous individual did not have access to ammunition and assault rifles, but all the laws, rules and regulations don't do any good if they aren’t enforced.

In 2007, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act after the school shooting at Virginia Tech. The NCIS is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Thirty-two people were killed in that mass shooting, which resulted from the shooter passing a background check, even though a year and a few months earlier he had been found by a Virginia Court to be an imminent danger to himself and others. Under a nearly 50-year old federal law, the Virginia Tech killer would have been ineligible to purchase firearms. The purpose of the NIAA was to improve and clarify reporting to prevent further mass shootings.

As we mourn yet another mass shooting, we need to realize that our safeguards and reporting systems failed. Efforts had been made as recently as May 2016 to increase and improve the reporting accuracy of the NICS and its ability to identify individuals such as the Virginia Tech and Sutherland shooters. Federal regulation 81 FR 91702 was issued and then opened for public comment and discussion. The rule provided for reporting from the Social Security Administration to NCIS of individuals who obtained federal disability payments for mental health disorders that would prevent them from owning a gun under the 1968 Federal Gun Control Act. After reviewing 91,243 comments, the rule providing for better reporting was approved and became effective Jan. 18, 2017, but compliance wasn’t required until December.

Compliance will never be required, however, because on Feb. 15, using the Congressional Review Act, the Senate joined the House to repeal the regulation and President Trump signed it Feb. 28. Remember, this was a rule designed to better implement an old gun control law, a law that was passed almost 50 years ago

If gun control laws had been properly enforced, hindsight shows us that at the very least Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Sutherland could have all been prevented. The thought is humbling because although bad things happen, we can see that we have the ability, with the proper use of our legal and regulatory systems, to prevent many of them.

There is too much death and suffering. Maybe it's time for a new bumper sticker ethos: “Rules rule.”

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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