Washington – Sen. Chris Murphy teamed up with a Republican colleague who is usually on the opposite side of the gun control debate, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, to introduce a bill Thursday that would improve federal background checks of prospective gun buyers.
With the help of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the senators crafted a bill that would increase the frequency with which state and federal agencies must report offenses that would legally prohibit individuals from purchasing a firearm.
Unlike other gun bills introduced in this session of Congress that were strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association, the new effort has the support of the gun rights group.
“The National Rifle Association has long supported the inclusion of all legitimate records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” said NRA Executive Director Chris Cox.
Besides Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, the legislation has other key GOP sponsors, Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Dean Heller of Nevada, and two other Democratic backers as well, Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
“This is a real substantial change to the background check system that could save a lot of lives,” Murphy said.
Blumenthal said “a powerful alliance across the aisle” has resulted in a “modest, but significant breakthrough.”
Unlike other legislation that has failed in the Senate, the bill would not expand the federal background check system beyond purchases made at gun shops, and allow sales by individuals on the Internet and at gun shows to be exempt from the system.
Instead, the “Fix NICS Act of 2017” reinforces the requirement that federal agencies report all infractions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, and creates a financial incentive for states to do so as well.
Connecticut is one of 13 states that use their own screening system, then report the information they obtain to NICS.
Congress has no authority to compel states to report all information NICS collects. The Murphy-Cornyn bill would offer new financial incentives, as well as favorable access to other federal assistance programs, to states that report infractions into the system.
The bill also has a “stick” as well as “carrots.” It would withhold bonuses and overtime pay from political appointees who head agencies that aren’t fully compliant in their reporting of information to NICS.
Texas shooter Devin Kelly, who killed 26 people in a small church near San Antonio, is a prime example of a failure of the existing gun background check system, which prevents the sale of firearms to a number of people. Those include people convicted of a crime or misdemeanor punishable by more than one year in prison, those with misdemeanor convictions for abusing a domestic partner or child, and those who are involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
A gun purchase can be completed if the NICS check does not identify any problem, or the system does not respond within three business days.
Kelly escaped from a mental health facility in 2012 after he was caught sneaking guns onto an Air Force base and “attempting to carry out death threats” made against military superiors.
Kelly also spent 12 months in a military prison for assaulting his then-wife and stepson and received a bad-conduct discharge. But the Air Force never reported those charges to the NICS system.
“While federal law prohibited the Texas shooter from possessing a firearm, he was able to pass a background check because the Air Force failed to transfer his conviction record to the FBI,” the NRA’s Cox said. “We applaud Sen. John Cornyn’s efforts to ensure that the records of prohibited individuals are entered into NICS, while providing a relief valve for those who are wrongly included in the system.”
States also fail to report required information.
The NICS database is missing millions of such records, according to an estimate by the NRA, including at least 25 percent of felony convictions.
The bill also would create a new “primary area” for the reporting of incidents of domestic abuse and offer new incentives to states that fully report the information on offenders to NICS.
“One of the problems with NICS is that states don’t upload a lot of domestic violence records,” Murphy said.
The bipartisan nature of the bill and the fact the co-sponsor of the bill, Cornyn, has the No. 2 position in the Senate Republican hierarchy, gives this legislation a much better chance of passage than any of a slew of bills introduced by Democrats alone since the mass shooting in Las Vegas on the night of Oct. 1.
“Senator Cornyn is committed to passing this bill,” Murphy said. “But I’ve been burned enough times not to be overly optimistic.”
Blumenthal said he and Cornyn, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will seek to forgo hearings on the bill in that panel “in the interest of time,” and have the bill go directly to the Senate floor.
The senator is optimistic.
“It could be a breakthrough in breaking the ice of complicity in congressional inaction on gun violence issues,” he said. “I think it could be a prelude to additional action.”
Updated at 5:20 p.m. with comment from the NRA.