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Why the battle for universal background checks for gun sales is so complicated


Shootings in eight states this weekend killed at least 15 people and wounded 60 others. Among them, in Philadelphia, police said three people were killed when multiple shooters fired into a crowd in a neighborhood that's famous for its nightlife. At least 11 others were hurt. And in Chattanooga, Tenn., a shooting near a nightclub also took at least three lives, including one person who was hit by a vehicle. Fourteen others were wounded. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly later told reporters he's an avid hunter, a gun owner, but he supports reforms.


TIM KELLY: That doesn't mean taking guns away from responsible gun owners, but it does mean mandatory background checks and prohibiting high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to hurt dozens of people without even having to reload.

FADEL: Josh Horwitz is a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, and he's on the line. Good morning.

JOSH HORWITZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So, professor, we're speaking just out of a bloody weekend, which unfortunately is pretty common now. In your view, what specific reforms are needed to stop gun violence?

HORWITZ: Well, I think it's important to understand that there's a number of reforms we need, and they often act in tandem. And there's nothing that we potentially can do that would solve all of this.

FADEL: Right.

HORWITZ: But we can just do so much better than we're doing right now. So I would start with...

FADEL: Yeah.

HORWITZ: ...Licensing access to handguns and firearms, having a real licensing procedure which goes beyond a background check to include a waiting period and fingerprints and things like that. I think robust firearm removal laws like DV removal and extreme risk protection orders - some people call them red flag laws. We need to get - we need to ban high-capacity magazines. We need to raise the age to buy an assault weapon especially - but all guns - to 21. And we need also robust violence interruption programs and funding. And that's just the start, but that's a good start.

FADEL: Let's hone (ph) in on background checks. We heard Mayor Kelly talk about that. Would that help stop these killings?

HORWITZ: Background checks are one very important piece in an overall gun violence prevention plan. And background checks alone are sort of the foundation of all other things, but by themselves, they need more to work. So background checks right now in the United States - in almost 30 states, you can buy firearms without going through a licensed dealer and getting a background check.

FADEL: Yeah.

HORWITZ: We need to do better than that. But that's just a part of this. For instance, if you have a - if you're prohibited because you have a DV protective order...

FADEL: Domestic violence protective order, yeah.

HORWITZ: Thank you. Domestic violence protection order. You can't - in some states, you can go - you know, go to a private sale, go to a gun store, go to a gun show, go to a - you know, go to the internet and find someone who can sell you a gun. And that's just wrong.

FADEL: You know, I've seen - I was actually shocked the first time I watched somebody buy a gun in the parking lot of a gun show. And that was completely legal. What would it mean to have a universal background check?

HORWITZ: It would mean that you can't do that. It would mean that you have to go to a federally licensed dealer and get a full NICS, National Instant Check System, background check, which checks three different databases to make sure that you're not a prohibited purchaser and that - we have that system in place. It's easy to do. We're just not doing it. And when I talk about - you mentioned the litany of shootings this weekend. You know, we can do so much better than we do now, and it starts with a thorough background check.

FADEL: Now, the data shows that the majority of Americans, including gun owners, support some form of restrictions, things like you mentioned, raising the age restrictions or red flag laws. But that's not really reflected in a divided Congress as they consider key gun control proposals that might have prevented some of the things we saw, raising the age limits or red flag laws. Do you think right now there is any appetite to find common ground on universal background checks, for example?

HORWITZ: I think the common - there is some common ground, not a lot, but there is some. So I think there's some common ground on trying to figure out how to improve the background check. I'd like to go farther than what I'm hearing is going on. But I think, you know, there's some appetite to improve the background check system to at least what they call commercial sales. I believe we need it on all sales.

FADEL: So realistically, what changes could actually happen in this divided Congress with GOP lawmakers and Democrats?

HORWITZ: So I think there's a chance for movement on background checks. I also think the big piece that people are going to really focus on are what I call extreme risk protection orders. Some people call them red flag laws. But I think there's an appetite to say, you know, the shooter in Uvalde, the shooter in Buffalo should not have had access to firearms. There were warning signs. There are - there's - you know, in 19 states and the District of Columbia, we have laws that can help with that. They need to be implemented, but they also need to be everywhere.

FADEL: Josh Horwitz is co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Thank you for taking the time.

HORWITZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.