2013 will be busiest year for background checks, gun buying
December 22, 2013
Filed under GUN DIALOG PROJECT
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This story was published in The Boulder Daily Camera on Dec. 26, 2013
By Annie Melton
CU News Corps
December will close out Colorado’s busiest gun-buying year on record, thanks in part to legislation that now requires background checks for private firearm transfers.
In the first 11 months of 2013, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation completed 354,880 background checks, compared to 335,940 for all of 2012, an increase of nearly 19,000 checks with December – usually the busiest month for gun purchases in the U.S. – still to go.
State Department of Public Safety statistics show 4,792 background checks on private sales from July, when the new law went into effect, through the end of November. Seventy-two of those checks resulted in blocked sales because the would-be purchasers had criminal records.
“Dozens of criminals would be walking around with a gun right now if not for the new law,” said Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) in a Dec. 11 Colorado House press release. Fields was one of 28 state representatives, along with 16 state senators, to sponsor the background check legislation.
“Our intention was to make our communities safer and make it harder for criminals to get guns,” Fields said. “We now have five months of data that prove that the law is working.”
Effective July 1, private transfers of guns — person-to-person transactions that previously did not go through licensed firearm dealers — became subject to background checks with the passing of HB 1229.
Approximately 98 percent of gun purchasers passed through the extensive state and federal database checks to legally obtain firearms this year.
Previously, private transfers took place at the discretion of the seller. If the seller had no reason to believe the buyer was not fit to own a firearm, they went through with the transaction, said CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina.
“If John Smith were to buy a gun from his neighbor, the neighbor would have to have a reasonable knowledge that John didn’t have any prohibitors from his past,” Medina said.
Now, private transactions must occur through a licensed firearms dealer and are subject to all the CBI database checks that FFL (Federal Firearms License), or public, transactions are subject to.
Colorado is one of only 13 states that conduct background checks by themselves; the other 37 involve the FBI to varying degrees. But the CBI uses the same federal databases as the FBI, in addition to three state databases to run name checks on potential firearm purchasers.
If prospective purchasers have no “prohibitors” — primarily felony charges, including homicide, assault, burglary and dangerous drugs — once the CBI has run their names through the various databases, purchasers are free to resume the transaction, assuming they are the 21 or 18 years of age to legally buy a handgun or a long gun, respectively.
The databases used by CBI are the Interstate Identification Index, the National Crime Information Center, a prohibited persons list (determined by the federal court system), the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Colorado courts databases, juvenile adjudications and the Colorado Crime Information Center. It takes four minutes for the CBI to run a full electronic background check.
Every year, about 2 percent of potential firearm purchasers are denied. The second-largest reason for denials, after assault charges, is “other,” a category Medina calls “a hodgepodge.”
“It includes everything from mental health adjudications to auto theft,” Medina said.
The Colorado State Shooting Association, the state’s official NRA branch, has been one of the more outspoken organizations in decrying what it considers to be stifling and unnecessary legislation. Castle Rock-based criminal defense attorney Tony Fabian, CSSA’s president, is fighting HB 1229 on the grounds that it violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Background checks in and of themselves are not a bad thing,” Fabian said. “But they have really had no effect on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, because criminals don’t get their guns through legitimate means.”
Fabian said he gets at least one phone call a day from a Coloradan denied a firearm purchase after a background check. Because even arrests, not just convictions, can prevent an individual from buying a gun, the law eliminates countless “law-abiding citizens” from becoming gun owners, Fabian said.
“There are now ridiculous hurdles to obtaining a firearm,” Fabian said. “And now gun owners are walking on eggshells, because the lawful transfer of their property is no longer permitted, unless they go through the state.”
State Representative Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) was a sponsor of HB 1229. Foote pointed to the 2013 denial statistics as proof that the bill has already achieved the main goal of the legislation.
“The bottom line is, background checks work,” Foote said. “It keeps guns out of the hands of felons and domestic violence offenders.”
Of the recent denials within private transactions, one was for a convicted murderer. Prior to the establishment of the new laws, that individual could have obtained a firearm, Foote said.
Colorado has garnered plenty of attention during the nationwide debate over gun control, something that Foote attributes to “a very vocal minority that feels like any restriction on gun transfer and ownership is inappropriate.”
Fabian also spoke to the political implications of the legislation.
“If gun owners are the minority, that minority has turned into a majority and recalled two senators,” he said, citing the removal of Democratic state senators John Morse (Colorado Springs) and Angela Giron (Pueblo) from office in September. “Every time pro-gun control advocates reveal their stance, they end up paying for it at the polls. They are taking a beating on the gun issue in Colorado.”
Another sponsor of the background check legislation, Rep. Beth McCann (D-Denver), said that Colorado is under particular scrutiny, making it stand out from the other states — New York, Connecticut, California — that passed similar laws this year.
“Colorado is at the forefront of the conversation because we’re in the unfortunate position of having more tragic situations related to the issue,” she said. “So we have to come up with more possible solutions.”
Despite political tension and the widespread coverage of last week’s Arapahoe High School shooting and the Aurora theater shooting in August 2012, Coloradans largely don’t want to be defined by the debate, Foote said.
“Constituents have moved on to other things,” Foote said. “Most people have moved on and want to move past this issue.”
CU News Corps is an investigative news project that operates within the Journalism & Mass Communication program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. You can find more of CU News Corps’ work on the Colorado Gun Dialog project at http://coloradogundialog.com.