20 Minutes, 4 Assault Weapons

Why We Need Universal Background Checks

The president traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city that has successfully reduced gun violence, to continue his push for Congress to pass commonsense measures to help prevent gun violence. The president highlighted several measures, including the simple idea that everybody who buys a gun should have to pass a background check:

The vast majority of Americans — including a majority of gun owners — support requiring criminal background checks for anyone trying to buy a gun.  (Applause.)  So right now, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are working on a bill that would ban anyone from selling a gun to somebody legally prohibited from owning one.  That’s common sense.  There’s no reason we can’t get that done.  That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea; it’s not a Democratic or Republican idea — that is a smart idea. We want to keep those guns out of hands of folks who shouldn’t have them.

In order to help you understand why it’s so important to implement universal background checks, we wanted to share this story from our ThinkProgress colleague Scott Keyes. He was able to buy four AR-15 assault weapons in just 20 minutes. Here’s his story:

Last week, four people in Colorado offered to sell me Smith & Wesson M&P15 assault rifles, the same weapon used by James Holmes in the Aurora theater massacre last year. In each case, the seller neither required nor requested a background check to make sure I wasn’t a criminal or mentally ill. If that sounds bizarre, it should. 92 percent of Americans support a law requiring anyone who purchases a gun anywhere to first pass a background check. And yet, in Colorado and most states, private gun sales are exempted from such a requirement.

This was on full display last week when we visited ArmsList.com, a Craigslist-style site that deals solely in firearms. We searched “Smith & Wesson M&P15″ in the Colorado listings and instantly found dozens of sellers. A few emails later, we had four people willing to sell us the gun that same day, no questions asked. When we inquired whether we’d need to do a background check or any paperwork to obtain the assault rifle, we met the same response every time: no.

When I asked one man whether a background check was required, he said he was simply “assuming” I am not a felon and am “a good and decent person that will not use this carbine to commit a crime and of course a sane and normal human being.” “If that is indeed the case,” he continued, “no background check is required by law in the state of Colorado.” A few wanted to do a “bill of sale,” a personal document showing that they had sold the gun to me “in the event you do something stupid with the rifle,” as one seller wrote. However, they were careful to note that this is only for their own records, not the government’s.

See samples from their responses below:

Seller #1:

Seller #2:

Seller #3:

Seller #4:

We did not ultimately purchase any of the weapons, both because we didn’t want assault rifles and because Colorado law requires you to be a resident in order to make such a purchase. The inquiries are illustrative, though, of just how easy it is for someone to legally obtain a firearm.

To reiterate, none of these sellers broke the law. Background checks are required at gun shows and gun stores, but not for private online sales, which account for 40 percent of gun transactions in the United States. That’s why closing the gun show loophole isn’t enough. Requiring background checks in some places but not others is like locking three of your car doors, leaving one unlocked, and expecting that car to be secure. Unless background checks are universal, criminals are able to buy weapons online without a single red flag going up.

BOTTOM LINE: Everyone who wants to buy a gun should have to pass a background check. More than 9 in 10 Americans agree that Congress should pass this simple measure to help keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Advocacy Team