What the “Universal Background Check” Bill Means for Gun Owners

What the “Universal Background Check” Bill Means for Gun Owners

Most hunters know that purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer requires the purchaser to pass a background check conducted through the federal instant check system. In many states, however, purchasers can also buy guns in private transactions that do not require the buyer to pass a background check.

The United States House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would regulate these private sales in all 50 states. It’s being referred to as “The Universal Background Check” bill. The legislation allows family members to gift firearms to one another, but bans anyone from exchanging money for a gun without passing a background check.

The House also passed another bill that would give the Federal Bureau of Investigations more time to complete background checks that are delayed in the instant system.

Gun rights and gun control groups respectively blasted and applauded the legislation.

“These bills are a transparent attempt by gun control advocates in Congress to restrict the rights of law-abiding Americans under the guise of addressing the violent criminal culture in America. The truth, however, is that neither of these bills will do anything to solve that problem,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.

Ouimet argues that enforcing the universal background check bill is impossible without a federal gun registry and does nothing but “turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals for simply loaning a firearm to friends or family members.​” He also holds that giving the FBI more time to complete background checks would allow “unelected government bureaucrats to indefinitely delay and prevent lawful firearm transfers.”

Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the nation’s largest gun safety groups, applauded the House and called on the Senate to pass the legislation as well.

“Gun violence is an epidemic within this pandemic, and the first step in addressing it is background checks on all gun sales,” said Everytown President John Feinblatt. “With the NRA sidelined by bankruptcy and a gun safety trifecta in Washington, we have a historic opportunity to pass this bipartisan legislation into law and save lives. Background checks are unfinished business for everyone in the gun safety movement, and now it’s time for the Senate to step up and do its part.”

The House passed the universal background check bill, H.R. 8, almost entirely along party lines. Of the 227 legislators who voted in favor, all but eight were Democrats.

The eight Republicans who voted for the bill did so for a variety of reasons. Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan voted for the bill to close the “gaping loophole” in current gun law. Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was endorsed by the gun control group Giffords for his desire to address gun violence while protecting the Second Amendment. Florida Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos A. Gimenez hail from purple districts that were only recently controlled by Democrats.

Only one Democrat voted against the legislation. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) is a moderate who also voted against his party in opposing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill.

The second bill, H.R. 1446, passed along even more partisan lines (219-210). All but two Republicans voted against, and all but two Democrats voted in favor.

What’s in the Universal Background Check Bill?
As it’s currently written, H.R. 8 would regulate private gun sales for all U.S. residents no matter their relationship. This means that if you want to buy a hunting rifle from your uncle or buddy, you’d have to drive down to a local gun dealer and pass a background check using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The checks are completed instantly for most buyers, though dealers charge $20 to $50 for completing the check.

Family members can transfer or exchange firearms but only via “loans or bona fide gifts.” Family members include spouses, domestic partners, parents and their children (including stepparents and their stepchildren), siblings, aunts or uncles and their nieces or nephews, and grandparents and their grandchildren.

These transfers can only take place if the original owner has “no reason to believe” the transferee is prohibited from owning a firearm or intends to use it to commit a crime.

Hunters will be pleased to know that the legislation also makes exception for transfers “while reasonably necessary for the purposes of hunting, trapping, pest control on a farm or ranch, or fishing”—as long as the owner has no reason to believe the transferee intends to use the firearm in a place where it is illegal and has reason to believe the transferee will follow hunting and trapping laws.

The legislation does not specify the scope of the phrase “reasonably necessary.”

In addition, the bill makes exceptions for law enforcement agents, executors of estates, and “temporary transfers that are necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”

The bill does not call for a federal firearms registry, so it’s unclear how the legislation will be enforced on the firearms currently possessed. Since firearms are not registered to individuals on the federal level, federal investigators cannot know who owned which firearm at what time.

H.R. 1446, the second gun control bill passed by the House, would increase the amount of time the FBI has to complete a background check. Right now, if a background check is not completed within three business days, a gun dealer may transfer a firearm to a buyer. H.R. 1446 would increase that time window to a maximum of 20 business days.

“Government Watch List”
Second Amendment advocates and gun industry representatives worry that H.R. 8 will be used in the future to justify a national gun registry. While the bill does not establish such a registry, Mark Oliva of the National Shooting Sports Foundation warns of a slippery slope towards gun confiscation.

“This bill doesn’t work without a national gun registry,” he told MeatEater. “And a registry is the first step towards confiscation.”

Oliva argues that even hunters who do not purchase firearms in private transactions or hunt with semi-automatic rifles should be concerned about H.R. 8. For the federal government to enforce universal background checks, regulators will need to establish a database listing which firearms were sold when and to whom.

As for H.R. 1446, Oliva warned it could indefinitely suspend a person’s Second Amendment rights. Under the bill, the FBI would have 20 business days (defined as days in which State offices are open) to complete a background check. But a NICS check expires within 30 calendar days, which would restart the entire process. If a check is initiated on a Saturday, and the month includes several state holidays, a legal gun owner may find their rights suspended for bureaucratic incompetence.

“Your rights delayed are your right denied,” Oliva said.

Next Step for the Universal Background Check
Both bills now head to the Senate, where they need 60 votes to pass under the current filibuster rules. Democrats, who control 50 seats, must secure the support of 10 Republicans or eliminate the filibuster in order to pass either bill.

Convincing 10 Republicans to break ranks and vote for gun control is unlikely, though Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to bring both bills up for a vote anyway, according to the New York Times.

Eliminating the filibuster, on the other hand, would only require convincing one or two Democrats who say they still support the rule. According to the Times, gun control bills are part of “a concerted strategy by Democrats to increase pressure on those in their ranks who are resistant to eliminating the legislative filibuster.”

Without the filibuster rule, Democrats would only need a simple majority to pass either bill, which they would have with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Senate committees should begin considering the legislation in the next few weeks. We’ll update you as new developments happen.

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