The Background Check System Is Ineffective in Preventing Gun Violence

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Author: Colin Goddard
Editor: Christine Watkins
Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: At Issue
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 1,935 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1000L

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Colin Goddard, "Testimony before the Crime Sub-Committee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, July 14, 2010," Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (blog), July 15, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

Colin Goddard is a survivor of the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in which gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people. Goddard has since become a gun control activist, is the assistant director for federal legislation at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and filmed the 2010 documentary Living for 32.

Just about any adult can go to a gun show in the United States and buy a gun, whether it be a small pistol or an AK-47, without showing identification or passing a background check. As a result, Seung-Hui Cho, with a record of mental health problems, was able to open fire on classrooms at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in April 2007, killing and wounding many students and teachers. To help prevent such disasters from happening again and to keep firearms from reaching the hands of people known to be dangerous, the background check system should be improved. Specifically, private sellers as well as licensed dealers must be obligated to perform background checks on every gun purchaser.

Now, the fact is Congressmen, I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if it weren't for the events that took place at Virginia Tech [Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University] on April 16th, 2007. I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if it weren't for the 10 minutes of hell that I survived on that day.

And I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if it weren't for all the things I have learned in my search for answering "Why" and "How" am I still alive.

In the Midst of the Shooting

What started off as a typical day in a small town school in southwest Virginia, soon further expanded our definition of the worst mass-shooting in US history. Midway through my 9:00 am French class, we began to hear muffled banging noises coming from somewhere outside of our classroom.

As soon as our teacher went to investigate the sounds, she slammed the door shut and told us to get under our desks and for someone to call 911. I took out my phone and, as I later found out, placed the only call to the police by someone in the building. The next 10-minute period was the longest 10-minute period of my entire life. It felt like hours.

From the floor in the back of my classroom, I took one glance at the front of the room where my teacher had stood and instead saw a man with two holsters over his shoulders begin to turn towards me and down my aisle of desks. I never saw his face. I had nowhere to escape and no time to react or even think. As I turned my head back, I told the voice on the other end of the phone that he was here, but I still didn't totally understand what that meant. The only decision that I was left with was to act as if I was already dead.

The force of the first bullet caused me to throw the phone from my hand and it landed next to the head of a girl named Emily. She picked it up and remained on the call with the police the entire time. Emily was ultimately able to give the dispatcher his location and help the SWAT team to get to us.

What was once a set of seemingly unusual bangs had now became a constant thunder of gunfire. It would pause momentarily while he changed out his extended ammunition magazines. The intensity of those sounds did vary slightly while he traveled back and forth between the three rooms. There were also screams in the beginning but generally nobody really saying anything.

Each time he came back into our room I was shot again. The second and third time in both my hips and the fourth time through my right shoulder. I don't ever remember thinking I was going to die however. I just kept thinking that I couldn't believe this was really happening to me. It was so surreal. There were times I felt like I was almost dreaming.

But this dream was finally interrupted by silence. As quickly as everything started, it all just stopped. By this point you could hear the police were very close. I thought he was hiding in our room and waiting to engage them when they entered. But as soon as the police came into our room I heard them say, "Shooter down," and realized that he had committed suicide in the front of our classroom. I then heard the EMT's begin their triage and they said, "This one's yellow, this one's red" then "black tag, black tag, black tag." This is when I knew some of my classmates were dead.

I put one hand up on a desk to let them know I was alive. They marked me as yellow, dragged me out into the hallway, and it was there that I began the long road to recovery.

Today, I still carry 3 bullets with me and a newly implanted titanium rod in my body.

The fact is, Congressmen, I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if it wasn't for that 10-minute experience that changed my life.

I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if it weren't for the phone call I made and the exceptional work of the law enforcement agencies that responded.

Cho's mental health records should have disqualified him from purchasing firearms.

Ineffective and Unenforceable Gun Laws

And finally, as simply as I can put it, I wouldn't be sitting in front of you today if our federal gun laws had been stronger. If Seung-Hui Cho, who had a known mental health history that disqualified him from purchasing firearms, had had his record uploaded to the NICS [National Instant Check System] background check system as required, I wouldn't be here in front of you today. The existing federal law at the time was too weak to protect me and my classmates, as it was intended to do.

So the fact is, I shouldn't be sitting in front of you today.

When we learned that fact, that Cho's mental health records should have disqualified him from purchasing firearms through the legal way he did, we worked with Congress to help ensure that states were getting more records uploaded into the National Instant Check System (NICS). This was a good first step, however it should be known that this improvement has yet to be applied in every state. This weakness then opened my eyes to the greater patchwork of state and federal laws in our country. And what I learned surprised me.

I bought an AK-47 without showing any ID or going through any background check.

What I learned was that many of our state and federal gun laws are written in ways to make them ineffective and unenforceable. Even if Cho had been properly turned down during a background check from the gun dealer, he could have easily attended any of the dozens of gun shows that take place throughout Virginia each weekend and bought the same weapons from a "private seller" with no background check into his mental history, and no questions asked. I know this first hand, and I tried to demonstrate it all to you with the video that you just saw. The existing Brady Act [system of background checks for gun purchases passed in 1993], as it is written, is too weak to protect future Americans from another Seung-Hui Cho or other prohibited purchasers.

Last summer, I traveled all over the country visiting gun shows in an attempt to expose the Gun Show Loophole. I passed right by all the licensed dealers responsibly conducting background checks and went right through the loophole over and over again. I went to shows in Texas, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota and right across the river in my home state of Virginia. I was amazed at how quick and easy it was getting my hands on just about any type of weapon I could imagine.

I bought, or watched a friend buy, 9mm's, 22's, Tech-9's, and Mack-11's. I bought an AK-47 without showing any ID or going through any background check. I even bought the same type of gun that shot me. Each transaction took less than 5 minutes. And when I was done, either I, or the purchaser I went with, would turn all weapons over to the police. The sickening thing about what I did and the footage you just saw was that everything was completely legal under our current law.

I can think of NO reasonable, responsible, logical reason why that should be. I can think of no reason why the Gun Show Loophole should exist. Why should sellers at one table be required to run background checks, when the sellers, literally two tables down—with the exact same weapons—are allowed to sell their guns to anyone who just has the cash in hand? The reasonable, responsible answer is: They shouldn't.

The Importance of Closing the Gun Show Loophole

It's no mystery why the guns sold by so-called "private sellers" are often more expensive than the exact same model sold by licensed gun dealers. Purchasers who know they can't pass a background check are willing to pay a premium. One seller told me straight up, and I quote, "No paperwork, no tax, that's gotta be worth something." For gun traffickers, domestic abusers and felons who can't pass a background check, that's worth plenty.

It is far too easy for dangerous people to get hands on dangerous weapons.

The fact is, since the Brady Act began requiring background checks only on licensed dealers, it has denied, and thus prevented, more than 2 million firearms from falling into the hands of dangerous prohibited purchasers. So it's only logical that this number would increase if the background check is further applied to private sellers dealing guns at gun shows because everyone knows that's an easy way to get around it.

My personal experiences provide ample evidence as to why our federal gun laws need to be strengthened. Getting more records into the NICS system is absolutely important. But without applying these records on a broader scale, that means without, at least, applying the background check to private sellers at public gun shows, all the new records in the world aren't really any more useful. And I'm here to tell you, first-hand, that ineffective laws that put guns in the hands of the wrong people are a serious threat to the public safety of your citizens. My experiences since April 16, 2007, have lead me to conclude that it is far too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on dangerous weapons in this country. So today, the gun show loophole must be closed.

The fact is, Congressmen, I wouldn't be sitting here in front of you today if I didn't believe, with every part of me, that this is the right thing to do.

I wouldn't be sitting here in front of you today if I didn't know that closing the Gun Show Loophole will save American lives.

And finally, I wouldn't be sitting here in front of you today if I didn't believe that my elected officials will do what is reasonable and right to protect their citizens.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010015250