When President Obama announced last week that he wants to require background checks on even more gun sales, the rhetoric hit the red zone. The Ted Cruz presidential campaign posted a photo of the president in a Nazi-like helmet with the legend: "Obama wants your guns." Marco Rubio said, "Barack Obama is obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment."
But all the noise may have obscured the reality on the ground in Georgia: background checks for gun purchasers are not that big a deal, even among gun owners and gun dealers.
“They need to do background checks,” said Jeff Appleton as he shopped last week at a Roswell gun range for his first assault-style rifle.
Since 1998, FBI checks have blocked about 1.3 million people nationwide from buying guns – about five of every 1,000 who requested background checks. According to federal data, almost 1 million of them were felons, fugitives or convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Another 110,000 checked yes to the question about whether they had illegally used drugs or were addicted.
“We do want people checked in private (gun) sales,” said Jami Williams, an avid gun owner who said Obama’s plan “wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be.”
That’s not to say that most Georgia gun owners agree with Obama on everything, or even anything.
But, even in Georgia, the notion of regulating guns is sometimes not the all-or-nothing proposition so often depicted inside the Internet's political echo chambers. Most Georgians don't view background checks as a political conspiracy to take away their guns but as a fairly reasonable approach to keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and mentally unstable people.
According to a poll last week on behalf of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 82 percent of Georgia residents said they supported requiring background checks for those buying firearms over the Internet or at gun shows, essentially private sales.
Process typically quick and painless
With a few exceptions, the entire process takes less than three minutes, said Tom Deets, president of Sharp Shooters USA, a gun range and gun store in Roswell.
“The process and cadence of what you do is a routine function,” he said. “It’s a structured system.”
If you’ve never tried to buy a gun — most people haven’t — here’s how it works: the would-be buyer fills out a form with the usual particulars of name and address (Social Security number is “optional, but will help prevent misidentification,” says the form). Then come a dozen questions: a single “yes” answer disqualifies you from gun ownership. For example, are you:
- Under indictment for a felony?
- A fugitive from justice?
- The unlawful user of, or addicted to, any controlled substance?
Or have you been
- Adjudicated mentally defective or committed to a mental institution?
- Discharged from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions?
The gun dealer sends the information to the FBI — he or she may also phone it in — and the bureau’s analysts run it against a database of crime, mental illness and other records. The check comes back fairly quickly — unless it’s Black Friday, a huge day for gun purchases — with one of three determinations: proceed, denied or delayed.
“Delayed” suggests that the background check raised a question that the analyst couldn’t immediately answer. The FBI then has three days to resolve the issue, or the status changes to “proceed.”
‘Buying guns because of him’
The substantial increase in background checks in Georgia in 2015 over 2014 suggests that many worry that their basic gun rights are in peril. Since Obama took office in 2009, background checks for a Georgia permit or to buy a gun increased 51 percent.
"He's the best gun salesman the gun industry has ever had," Appleton said, adding that any pronouncements from Obama about firearms seem only to make people buy more guns out of fear that this president will some day take away that option. "The whole (stock) market is tanking and gun stocks are going through the roof. Talk about unintended consequences."
“The uninformed public is going out and buying guns because of him,” Appleton said.
But news accounts of mass shootings and terrorist attacks also contribute, said John Monroe of the gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org.
For example, several metro Atlanta police agencies are hosting “active shooter” seminars in which they train civilians on how to respond to a mass shooting at work or in a public place. The seminars have been packed.
“You’ve got chiefs of police in major cities telling people, instead of being docile and basically giving in to terrorists, they should fight back,” Monroe said.
‘We’re not trying to fix the problem’
Obama’s announcement last week of tighter measures around background checks was “much ado about nothing,” said Tom Deets, the Roswell gun store executive.
He said Obama was simply “talking around the fringes. …We’re not trying to fix the problem. We’re just trying to make it look like we’re trying to fix the problem.”
Obama announced he was making the changes via executive order to focus on gun merchants who fly below the radar by claiming to be hobbyists to avoid getting a federal firearms license. The license requires the seller to run a background check on all buyers. Obama wants to add 200 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to ensure that those who sell firearms for a living — either over the Internet, out of their homes or at gun shows — are licensed. He also wants 230 new FBI positions to improve processing the average of 63,000 background checks a day.
At the same time, the Social Security Administration has been told to look for ways to link that agency's mental health records to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Instant Background Check system, which would prevent the mentally ill from buying guns. For the most part, the only disqualifying mental health information in the NICS system comes from the courts that involuntarily commit mentally ill people for treatment or that find a criminal defendant incompetent to stand trial, guilty but mentally ill or not guilty due to mental illness.
All the proposed changes involve administrative rules and funding with no new restrictions on gun ownership.
Even before the details of the executive order were announced on Tuesday, some gun rights advocates and Republican presidential candidates were warning that Obama was perching the Second Amendment on a "slippery slope."
“The rhetoric about gun control often doesn’t reflect the particular policies that are proposed,” said Danny Hayes, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
Much of the outrage from those accusing Obama of undermining the Second Amendment is not based on the facts but on politics, said Andrew McClurg, a professor at the University of Memphis law school.
“Some people are going to oppose restrictions on guns. Period,” McClurg said. “Whether it’s reasonable or not.”