Editorials

editorial

Background checks could help prevent terrorism

A sign to direct traffic was posted outside The West Springfield Gun and Knife Show in 2013.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/file
A sign to direct traffic was posted outside The West Springfield Gun and Knife Show in 2013.

The terrorist attack in Paris has Americans worried, particularly since ISIS, whose murderous adherents carried out that savagery, has threatened to cause similar carnage in this country. Beyond vigilance and close attention to intelligence, it’s sometimes difficult to identify concrete steps that could prevent or mitigate possible attacks. That’s particularly true when it comes to lone-wolf sympathizers who may be inspired to terrorism by the murderous mayhem ISIS has caused elsewhere. But here’s one: Close the gun show and private-sale loophole.

That loophole means that in 33 states, potential terrorists can go to a gun show and purchase firearms from a private seller without undergoing a background check, as would be required if they were buying from a federally licensed firearms dealer. Just by way of illustration, at a gun show in one of those states, a would-be buyer could be rejected after an instant background check by a federally licensed dealer, then simply move a few tables away and purchase a similar weapon from a private seller, with no background check required. And the Internet has become a common way for gun sellers and buyers to connect for transactions that don’t require background checks.

Allowing those loopholes to persist makes absolutely no sense. After all, background checks by federally licensed dealers have prevented more than 2.4 million illegal gun sales, including more than one million purchases by attempted felons. However, we also know that most criminals don’t go to federally licensed dealers for firearms, but rather obtain their guns through straw purchasers, private sales, or theft.

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Because there is no system for tracking secondary sales of guns — that is, those that occur after a purchase from a licensed dealer — it’s hard to develop a reliable estimate of how often guns purchased from private sellers are used in crimes.

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But we do know that Islamist terrorist organizations have urged their followers to acquire firearms and learn how to use them. We know that they have singled out the United States as a country where firearms, including AK-47s, are easily obtained. We know that, in a video urging followers to commit acts of terrorism, an Al Qaeda spokesman (since dispatched by a drone attack) pointed out that, in America, firearms can be acquired at gun shows “without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card.”

We know that sympathizers with, and gun-runners for, other terrorist organizations have purchased guns and ammunition at those shows. We know that illegal immigrants have bought and sold guns and ammunition at gun shows. We know that some of the weapons used in mass shootings in the United States have been purchased at gun shows. And we know there are as many as 5,000 gun shows a year in this country.

In April 2013, legislation to require background checks for all gun show and Internet sales garnered a Senate majority, but lacked the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. That legislation should be brought up again. In light of the explicit terrorist threat from ISIS, opponents might well rethink their objections. The bill should also be pushed in the House. Even if it fails, citizens have a right to know where their senators and representatives stand on this important matter.

This is also an area where states can take action. State legislators can pass laws requiring background checks for all gun show and Internet-facilitated sales, as well as for any private gun sales to nonfamily members. In many states, citizen activists can collect signatures to put such a law on the ballot.

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Closing the gun show loophole obviously isn’t a cure-all for terrorism. No single measure or action is. Still, the loophole is something terrorists are aware of and could well exploit. It should have been closed long ago. There is no excuse for not doing so now.