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Democratic lawmakers take up universal background checks for gun purchases

March 2, 2023
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Nearing the one-month mark since a gunman killed three students and injured five more on Michigan State’s campus on Feb. 13, Democrats in the Michigan legislature have introduced a package of bills aimed at curbing gun violence.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, who is a sponsor of the package, said that the bills are part of “common sense” gun policy changes in the state of Michigan, particularly the addition of universal background checks, or UBCs. 

“Right now in Michigan, we only do background checks on handguns, which is insane,” Bayer said.

Michigan’s current policy regarding background checks requires only federally licensed gun sellers to run a scan. According to experts, that allows a large number of gun sales to slip through, regardless of the buyer’s history. 

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor and gun policy expert at SUNY Cortland, has written six books on historical and contemporary gun policy. He said that it’s a common misconception that every gun sale is made after a background check. 

“Most people think that when you buy a gun, a background check goes with it," Spitzer said. "But what people often don't realize is that between 20 and 25% of all gun sales in America occur without a background check.”

Experts, such as Spitzer, have identified certain avenues for gun sales that don’t often come with a background check— online sales by non-licensed dealers, passing of guns between family members or one private citizen selling a gun to another are all ways gun possession skirts a background check. 

Under a universal background check law like the one on the table in Michigan, all gun sales, regardless of the seller’s license, would lead to a background check of the buyer. Factors which might keep a person from buying a weapon would include criminal or domestic violence history, mental health issues, or a dishonorable military discharge.

“The whole idea behind universal background checks is not to keep people from having guns per se, but to do a better job in making sure that people who shouldn't have a gun in the first place don't get a gun,” Spitzer said.

Sean Holihan, who works as state legislative director for Giffords Law Center said that experts from several violence-prevention groups have been working alongside Michigan lawmakers to help speed passage of gun reform policies. The Giffords Law Center is a gun violence prevention organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who is a survivor of gun violence herself.

He said when it comes to universal background checks, voters largely favor the policy.

“This is something that polls in the high eighties,” Holihan said. “This is a very popular policy, it's very hard to beat back against this.”

Those numbers aren’t lost on legislators. Bayer said universal background checks and the two other proposed policies were specifically chosen to be the first movement on gun reform due to their higher approval ratings.

“I have hopes that we'll get a decent number of Republicans supporting it because I know across Michigan, it's 70 to 90% of people that support it, and that includes a heck of a lot of Republicans and Republican gun owners,” Bayer said.

Those who oppose universal background checks typically cite the Constitution, asserting that applying background checks to every gun purchase violates the Second Amendment. Spitzer, who's spent his career studying the legal implications of gun policy, said from a constitutional law standpoint, experts tend to agree that UBCs don’t pose any threat to the right to bear arms.

“There's some people who believe that any gun law is a violation of the Second Amendment,” Spitzer said. “And there's no reason to believe that whatsoever.”

Holihan said most guns used in mass shootings are purchased legally, often as a result of insufficient background checks. 

“Universal background checks are the fundamental building block of gun violence prevention laws,” Holihan said. “It's ensuring that anyone with a violent background, domestic violence felony or misdemeanor, unstable mental health history, we're ensuring that those people are not able to get access to a weapon.”

As for whether or not universal background checks would have prevented the events of Feb. 13 in East Lansing, both Spitzer and Holihan said there’s no way of knowing. However, Holihan said laws like these could prevent acts of gun violence in the future.

“What we do know is that if you have universal background checks in place, we do see a reduction in gun violence in those states that do have these laws,” Holihan said.


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