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Little progress in enforcement of existing gun laws

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A customer looks at a pistol at a vendor's display at a gun show held by Florida Gun Shows in Miami.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Gary Martin was exactly the kind of person that gun control background checks — a federal system now 25 years old — was designed to catch.

It failed. Again.

In Mississippi in 1994, Martin stabbed his girlfriend with a kitchen knife, beat her with a baseball bat, and warned “we are all going to die” if she left him. He should have never been able to buy a gun after that. But many years later, shopping for a gun in Illinois, Martin lied about his criminal past, and a federal background check missed his felony aggravated assault conviction and prison term in Mississippi for attacking his girlfriend.

Martin bought himself a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun.

Illinois authorities later discovered the error and revoked Martin’s firearm permit. But all that happened next was a letter from the state police telling him to give up his gun. Despite the state’s tough gun laws, he didn’t. Instead, in February, as he was being fired from a warehouse job in Aurora, Martin used his Smith & Wesson to kill five co-workers and wound five police officers before being shot to death.

Last week, two important pieces of gun control legislation passed the House of Representatives. One closes the so-called gun show loophole by requiring universal background checks, an idea favored by 85 percent of Americans. The other extends the background review period from three days to 10, allowing more time for disqualifying records to be found.

Both bills have an unlikely future in the Republican-controlled Senate. But improvements of any kind will ultimately fall short when existing laws are not vigorously applied. Americans can hardly be expected to get behind new gun laws when authorities keep bungling old ones.

The Brady Law of 1993, mandating the criminal-background check, has never been adequately enforced. (The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, administered by the FBI, was established in 1998 in response to Brady.)

Nearly 1.5 million people have been denied firearms under the system. But unlawful purchases still occur because agencies fail to provide NICS with necessary records or don’t follow up when mistakes are made.

And people keep dying.

The Air Force failed to notify NICS about the criminal record of a discharged airman who then bought an assault-style rifle and killed 26 people at a Texas church in 2017.

Travis Reinking’s guns were taken away in 2017 after a White House trespassing incident. Police gave them to his father, and investigators said Reinking later used one of them to allegedly murder four random people at a Waffle House near Nashville last year.

A report last year found 112,000 cases in 2017 where people lied about their backgrounds to buy a gun, a potential felony. Only 12 cases were prosecuted.

Of the 10,818 people in Illinois like Martin who had their gun licenses revoked last year, more than 8,000 kept their illegal guns. According to the Chicago Tribune, 10 people were arrested for the offense.

Some progress has been made. Last year, Congress passed legislation offering incentives to state and local agencies to improve NICS compliance. But the Justice Department told The Wall Street Journal that states have yet to submit millions of records to the FBI.

Federal record submissions have increased by 400 percent, but a requirement that military service branches like the Air Force do a better job of reporting criminal backgrounds has not been met. The Department of Homeland Security has also failed to abide by the law.

The nation is awash in firearms. The least that federal, state and local agencies can do is enforce existing laws preventing the violent and the mentally ill from acquiring guns.

USA Today

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Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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