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Gun debate 101: Time for 'universal' background checks on buyers?

Expanded background checks may well be among Vice President Biden's recommended gun policy reforms in response to the Newtown school shootings. They'd be aimed at closing the 'gun show loophole.' Here's what that would mean.

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Who opposes universal checks, and why?

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The National Rifle Association is leading the charge against expanding criminal background checks to private gun sales. Its key objection is that such a step would be ineffective – it would not keep guns out of the hands of criminals and not do anything to protect children in schools. It would just create another layer of regulatory red tape with which law-abiding citizens would be forced to contend.

Moreover, opponents say universal checks are irrelevant to the problem at hand: keeping schools safe. “It feels like [the discussion] is turning into a ramped-up version of the same old gun-control arguments,” said Cam Edwards, host of “Cam & Company” on NRANews.com, on his show Thursday. “Meanwhile, we still have the issue of our kids and safety in schools, and that’s being shoved aside….”

Many gun-rights advocates argue, too, that Congress is unlikely to adopt proposals that smack of new restrictions on gun owners. Whether a universal background check falls into the "bridge too far" category may depend on the specific details of its cost and how it would be carried out.

And lest anyone worry that the National Review has lost its conservative bearings, here’s the magazine's Jim Garaghty during an appearance Thursday on “Cam & Company”: “The legislative solutions that are proposed [after a tragedy such as the Newton, Conn., school shootings] very rarely have anything to do with what happened…. After the Virginia Tech shooting, the preeminent discussion from Mayors Against Illegal Guns and [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and all these groups was, ‘We have to close the gun show loophole,’ even though the shooter at Virginia Tech didn’t get his guns at a gun show.”

Have universal background checks been tried anywhere?

Seventeen states have taken some kind of step to beef up background checks at gun shows, according to the Brady Campaign. Among those are California and Rhode Island, which require such precautions for all sales of guns, including private sales. California does this by mandating that all gun sales go through licensed dealers for background checks, and that service can cost a private seller $35 per buyer.

“California's regulatory policies were associated with a decreased incidence of anonymous, undocumented gun sales and illegal straw purchases at gun shows. California gun shows were not hurt by the restrictions,” concludes the Brady Campaign on its website, citing a 2007 study published in the journal Injury Prevention. 

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