NRA gets pragmatic, backs background check fix

Firearms salesman Nathan Williams, 37, of Albuquerque, attends to customers at The Outdoorsman gun shop in Santa Fe, N.M.
Firearms salesman Nathan Williams, 37, of Albuquerque, attends to customers at The Outdoorsman gun shop in Santa Fe, N.M. AP

As Congress tries to fix the nation’s broken background check system, the National Rifle Association is playing a new role: Political pragmatists.

The powerful gun lobby is supporting an effort backed by Democrats, Republicans and gun control advocates to fix the system that allowed the shooter at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church, last month to obtain a gun. The NRA argues the fix helps law-abiding citizens get guns more easily while keeping them out of the hands of criminals.

The bill with the changes aims to improve the background check system by penalizing federal agencies who fail to report records to the background check system, and increases federal funding for reporting domestic violence records.

The Texas shooter killed 26 people with a firearm he purchased after passing a background check, despite multiple military and domestic violence complaints.

Support for a bill to fix that background check system puts the NRA in the company of gun control groups that call the move a modest step in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

It also pits the group against some members of the gun rights community, who want to use the Texas incident to attack the background check system as a whole. Those groups have been urging allies in Congress to reject the fix, even when it’s combined with gun rights expansion efforts.

NRA Executive Director Chris Cox last month praised the background fix pushed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, saying his group “applaud[s]” the effort “to ensure that the records of prohibited individuals are entered into” the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, “while providing a relief valve for those who are wrongly included in the system.”

That system, created as part of a larger gun safety law in early 1990s, is supposed to prevent criminals from purchasing guns.

The Brady Act made background checks a requirement for guns purchased through licensed dealers. Here’s a brief look at how the current system works. (Nicole L. Cvetnic/McClatchy)

While the NRA wants bigger changes to improve the system, its leaders support Cornyn’s bill, which has support from Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

The NRA applauds the bill for giving people who were wrongly entered into the system a way to appeal their rejection more quickly.

“A good example of someone who should have been in the system and was not is the Sutherland Springs shooter,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. “The system is only as good as the data in the system, and the data in the system is severely lacking.”

Others in the gun rights movement disagree. They want the system gone altogether.

When the House approved its version of the FIX NICS bill earlier this month, Gun Owners of America urged members to vote against it, calling it additional gun control.

“We’re very concerned that more law-abiding people are going to be thrown into the NICS system,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “It’s a broken system, we don’t want to fix it, want to fix it for good by repealing it.”

The NICS system was originally designed as a compromise in the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. That bill called for background checks on gun purchases. Gun rights advocates pushed for those checks to be instant, similar to credit checks, instead of waiting days or weeks for them to process.

Baker said the system has fallen well short of the NRA’s expectations. It failed to provide the “fair, fast and accurate” results that were promised, and needs massive improvements, she said.

But gun rights activists have largely abandoned the idea of getting rid of background checks.

Since 20 children and six adults were killed by a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut five years ago, Quinnipiac University polls have consistently found support for background checks on gun purchases higher than 90 percent.

"This shouldn’t be a political issue. Groups across the spectrum agree that we should pass this modest, bipartisan bill to improve the background check system,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group seeking to end gun violence.

Cornyn’s bill has endorsements from groups across the political spectrum, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“We are in agreement that NICS is a mess,” said Baker.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch