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Health Policy Expert Says Background Checks Work

Health policy researcher Lori Post argues that the creation of a federal universal background check is imperative to stop mass shootings because a patchwork of federal and state laws has created loopholes.

lori post
Lori Post, speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council last September

By Lori Post
Fall 2019

This past August ended as it began — with a mass shooting in which a gunman took a significant number of lives. On Aug. 31 a man killed seven near Odessa, Texas, just weeks after a shooter in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton killed a total of 31 people. Although mass shootings in the U.S. comprise less than 1% of all gun deaths, sensationalism drives news cycles and ultimately gun policy. Polls show that the majority of Americans believe some sort of gun control legislation is needed.

In the wake of these recent mass shootings, politicians on both sides of the aisle voiced support for background checks as the solution.

However, as details emerged that the Odessa shooter had failed an earlier background check and still managed to obtain a firearm, this led some people to conclude that background checks don’t work.

I strongly disagree.

In 2014 the Odessa shooter was denied the purchase of a gun because he was adjudicated “a mental defective.” Yet despite this, he was able to buy a firearm through a private sale. This is a pretty clear case that the background check worked when it was conducted and that a comprehensive background check system requiring a check for all gun transactions would have prevented the actual sale.

In Michigan I led a team that developed the national model for a comprehensive background check system for workers in long-term care facilities, to make sure that people who have physically abused or neglected patients or stolen Social Security checks don’t slip through the cracks.

While this has successfully stopped dangerous individuals from being hired as direct care providers for vulnerable patients, firearm background checks will need to go much further.

First, the background check has to be conducted on the basis of a fingerprint scanned into the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System to determine whether a person has a criminal history.

Second, we must identify escalating predatory behavior and personality disorders. Documenting concerning behavior is necessary to include with criminal records to provide an overall profile.

Third, hate speech aimed at racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ or migrant groups and speech obsessed with killing, massacres, kill counts or stockpiling weapons and ammunition are all critical telltales, and they should all be flagged by current and former employers and school administrators in anonymous surveys.

The creation of a federal universal background check is imperative to stop mass shootings because a patchwork of federal and state laws has created loopholes. Background checks will only work if the same rules apply within each state to both licensed and unlicensed or private vendors.

In the end, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this year refused to act on a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun purchases because it was not clear that President Trump would support it.

In Texas, one day after the mass shooting in Odessa, eight new gun laws went into effect that were designed to ease restrictions on guns and curb fatalities by arming civilians.

Increasing the number of guns and gun-toters will not work. Let’s try prevention instead. 

Lori Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, was the lead principal investigator in the Michigan Background Checks Pilot Program, which became the prototype for the patient protections section of the Affordable Care Act.

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