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EDITORIAL: Expanded background checks won’t end U.S. gun violence

Gun control advocates have filed an initiative to require background checks for private-party firearm sales in Nevada. If the groups behind the drive collect enough valid signatures to gain a vote on their petition, they’ll still have to overcome the strongest argument against expanded background checks: the fact that determined lawbreakers who want a gun will not respect the laws written to disarm them.

Case in point: This month’s horrific killing spree by Jerad and Amanda Miller, who executed Las Vegas police officers Igor Soldo and Alyn Beck, then killed concealed weapon permit holder Joseph Wilcox after he tried to intervene. Jerad Miller was a felon prohibited from ever possessing a gun. Because his wife lived with him, she could not lawfully own a gun he had access to. Yet they armed themselves to the teeth. She bought all their guns legally in Indiana, Las Vegas police said.

And even today’s background check requirements haven’t stopped some of the country’s worst mass shootings.

The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., was carried out by Adam Lanza, who used weapons lawfully purchased by his mother in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in America. James Holmes passed background checks to acquire the firearms he used in the 2011 Aurora, Colo., movie theater mass shooting. Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people, in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, also passed a background check. Even Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, passed a background check and bought a handgun despite having been ruled mentally ill by a judge.

This is not to say that background checks are bad policy. These examples merely highlight that expanded background checks will not stop the kinds of crimes that increasingly leave Americans emotionally devastated and angry. The checks have gaps because of poor mental health systems and poor reporting of disqualifying events. It’s up to states to enact policies that fill those gaps for background checks to be effective.

Last week, the Review-Journal reported a study had identified more than 800,000 criminal cases going back as far as 20 years that had not been forwarded by law enforcement and the courts for entry into the state criminal information repository. That deficiency could allow some felons to pass background checks and purchase firearms.

That said, a gun-violence study completed last year by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that keeping guns out of the hands of people under restraining orders saves lives. It’s the most powerful argument in favor of expanded background checks.

The petition’s supporters must collect nearly 102,000 valid signatures from registered Nevada voters by Nov. 11 to bring the initiative before the 2015 Legislature. If it fails to win approval, the initiative would go before Nevada voters in November 2016. The highly partisan issue would spark a highly emotional campaign, amid a presidential election, no less.

Polls show the vast majority of Americans favor expanded background checks, with the country’s moderates joining liberals in support. The gun-control set understands that more ambitious policy proposals would be less likely to pass. Never mind that they’d be less likely to do any good. Proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines ignore the fact that handguns are used in nearly 90 percent of violent crimes. And how many more school shootings will take place before policymakers acknowledge that “gun-free zones” only serve to leave people defenseless?

Perhaps, if this petition makes it to the 2016 ballot, all voters can agree on something: There is no simple solution to gun violence in America.

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