The Better Gun Control Alternative

Full Disclosure: I am a college educated (B.A. In Philosophy, of all things) social liberal who voted for President Obama twice. However, I was born and raised in the rural Midwest where guns are commonplace and positively regarded as a source of food, a last ditch means of protection when the authorities are a half-hour drive away, and as a source of casual recreation. As fate would have it, I was at a shooting range enjoying a few rounds of trap shooting on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. Since that day the political atmosphere and the absurd vitriol being spouted by both sides of the gun control debate has weighed heavily on me. This is my proposal for what the proper first step toward peace should be.

Step One — Expand and Improve NICS

NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) is broken and mismanaged. Every background check processed requires a human operator entering information dictated over the telephone by another human into a computer. In 2016, this is supposedly the best the U.S. Government can do.

I’m not buying it. NICS should be fully automated and accessible through a secure web portal. In fact, the web-based NICS system should be the most advanced non-D.O.D. computing system operated by the government.

The other major flaw in the system is that the FBI (who run NICS) routinely does not receive pertinent information from local authorities in a timely manner in order to suspend gun sales to disqualified persons. This has to be corrected immediately.

Since the NICS system would be automated, all of the now-redundant telephone operators can be repurposed as data collectors. They would each be assigned some arbitrary jurisdiction, and their job, for forty hours every week, would be to harvest data and update the NICS system in order to keep it as up to date as possible with every new felony conviction, domestic abuse allegation, restraining order petition and other disqualifying offenses.

Imagine! Instead of having an army of people serving as middlemen between FFL (Federal Firearms License) dealers and the results of the background checks, they could actually be ensuring that the system is working as optimally as is possible.

Step Two — Make NICS Open to the Public

Most states do not require background checks when a private party sells a firearm to another private party. These “face to face” sales are often mentioned in conjunction with the so-called (and, in my personal opinion, mythical) “gun show loophole”. But consider this: If I sold one of my guns to my neighbor tomorrow, I’d have no means of performing a background check on them as a private citizen. (I could insist on going to an FFL dealer and paying them a surcharge — $15, maybe $20 — to perform a background check on my neighbor, if he consented and showed up in person.)

Why shouldn’t I be able to say, “I’d like to run a background check on you before we make this deal, just to cover my own backside,” and actually do it from the comfort and convenience of my own home (or anywhere given the prevalence of smartphones)? The “responsible gun owners” that get lambasted in the media as being in favor of children dying are, by and large, regular law-abiding citizens with no criminal history or intentions. These are responsible folks who want above all else to feel safe and secure, and they believe in a certain degree of self policing. Walking away from a sale when the buyer gives off a bad or sketchy vibe is not unheard of in the gun owning community. Call me crazy, but I believe public access to NICS would be welcomed by anyone who appreciates the peace of mind of knowing they didn’t break a federal law.

Privacy then becomes a huge issue. I get that. But for those who have never gone through the NICS experience, it is basically a pass/fail test. No personal information whatsoever is given in the result. It’s not like you’d be allowing a total stranger, coworker, or acquaintance to see all of your past indiscretions or misdeeds. So that takes care of that concern.

But there’s still the front end, the proffering of personal data such as name, date of birth, address, and Social Security number. Not everyone is comfortable with sharing that with strangers, and that is completely legitimate. While that option should exist for those comfortable enough to share, another more private method is necessary.

Step Three — Apps and User Accounts

The web-based automated and constantly updated NICS system should also be made available to the public via smartphone apps. One key feature of the NICS app experience would be the ability to perform a background check simply by scanning the barcode found on the back of most state issued identification cards.

To highlight the ease of use this feature would add, a typical transaction would consist simply of checking the photo on the ID card, then flipping it over and using a phone’s camera to scan the code which would then return the pass/fail result of the background check. There would be no personal data manually entered into a stranger’s phone or computer, thus ensuring one’s personal privacy.

We live in a privacy obsessed age though, and yet another option should be made available.

This option would be a strictly voluntary, opt-in, process of creating a NICS user account. This would allow a prospective gun buyer to open their smartphone app, log in to their account, and present a digital “pass” proving their eligibility to own a firearm. This pass would include at least four vital pieces of information: a photo (as copied from a digital scan of a valid ID card), the purchaser’s full name, that they have passed the background check, and the date that the background check was processed (to be updated regularly) to avoid potential fraud attempts.

Alternatively, a registered NICS user could be looked up by the seller using a unique USER ID, that would also display the “pass” further making the exposure of vital information a nonissue.

Step Four — Drop the Hammer

This is likely to be the most controversial part of my proposal. Gun owners may or may not agree with me to this point, but here is where they will likely turn on me completely.

This digital system does leave a trail. Personally, I think it should. It’s not a registry, or anything of the sort. But if you perform a background check on someone who is not eligible to own a firearm, and they get one and commit a crime with it, you should be investigated to ensure that you did not sell them a gun. Be able to prove that you sent them packing. Have a bill of sale pointing to someone else. Tell the police who you actually sold the gun to, and let them corroborate your story.

It adds an extra bit of incentive not to look the other way in the name of some quick cash. Because if you did ignore a failed background check, that’s inexcusable. You should be locked up for that.

It also provides police with a potential witness in certain cases. Fugitives from justice are ineligible for gun ownership, perhaps the person who failed the background check was a wanted criminal. The police now have someone that they can interview, someone that may have some information to help them catch the criminal.

Isn’t that what we’re about, fellow gun owners? Being good citizens? Being vigilant and helpful? Ensuring the safety of ourselves and others?

Time to put up or shut up.

As you may have noticed by now, none of these changes require any new legislation, or executive orders, or partisan support. Possibly extra funding, but that’s all. This is mostly just administrative stuff that could be implemented at any time.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most beneficial “common sense” gun control that could be realistically implemented in today’s political climate. It’s not the end of the debate, but it’s the best first step I can fathom. Fair to both sides with the potential to tighten up the existing system without making major changes to it.

I realize how contentious this topic is. I will happily respond to questions, concerns, and comments, but hyperbole and vitriol, regardless of your position, will be ignored completely. This is a time for civil discord, not flame wars.

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