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News and notes on guns in America

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[Lynn Hey/News & Record via AP]

Democrats’ Bill Would Nudge States to Require Permits for Handgun Purchases

A group of House and Senate Democrats on Thursday introduced a bill to encourage states to adopt “permit-to-purchase” laws for handguns, which would require that buyers first have a license from law enforcement before legally obtaining firearms.

“Handgun licensing saves lives for the same reason drivers’ licensing saves lives,” House sponsor Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland said in a press release. “It takes the dangerous people out of our way as much as possible.”

The Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act stops short of creating a federal licensing program, but would provide grants to states that create their own permitting systems. To qualify, states would have to require applicants be 21 or older, show up to a police station, and provide fingerprints and a photograph, in addition to submitting to a background check.

Like background checks, permit-to-purchase laws have polled well. According to a 2017 national survey, about three quarters of Americans approve of the licenses, including nearly 60 percent of gun owners.

Senate co-sponsor Chris Van Hollen, also of Maryland, has introduced similar bills since 2015. But this is the first time the legislation has been entered into a Democratic-controlled House. For now, the bill stands little chance of becoming law, given that a GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up the bill and President Donald Trump has been reluctant to diverge from the National Rifle Association, which opposes permit-to-purchase laws.

Handgun licensing tries to achieve the same goal as universal background checks — stopping gun sales to prohibited purchasers — with different means. A background check is conducted at the point of sale by electronically querying state and federal databases. If the check turns up no prohibiting records, like a felony conviction or court order for involuntary psychiatric commitment, the sale can go through. However, the buyer does not necessarily retain any kind of record of the check. And in most states, checks only have to be conducted for retail sales, leaving open a vast loophole for unregulated private sales between individuals.

With a permit-to-purchase law in place, retail or private sellers could not transfer a gun to someone else unless the buyer has a law enforcement-issued license. Often, states require that applicants show up in person at a police station to apply. The application process involves a standard background check, but can also entail fingerprinting and training requirements. Depending on the state, the licenses are valid anywhere from 30 days to 10 years, and applicants must get rechecked upon renewal.

Permit-to-purchase laws for handguns currently exist in nine states and the District of Columbia, according to the Giffords Law Center. In an additional two states, California and Washington, purchasers must obtain a permit demonstrating proficiency in gun safety.

The permit-to-purchase proposal comes less than four months after the House passed a universal background check bill. But experts say there is evidence that permit-to-purchase laws reduce gun violence more effectively than background checks alone, which have a mixed record in practice.

Handgun purchase licenses on top of background checks allow for easier enforcement of prohibitions against firearm sales to known dangerous people, can deter rash decisions, and have been effective in reducing homicides and suicides, according to a new white paper on handgun permits released Thursday by the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s hard to hold someone accountable for failing to conduct a background check. It’s easy for law enforcement to ask a seller, ‘Did you see the permit?’” said Cassandra Crifasi, a public health scholar at Johns Hopkins and co-author of the paper. “And the process of applying could create an extra layer that, while it won’t necessarily deter someone from buying a gun, could reduce impulsive purchases in a way that a standard background check might not.”

A number of additional studies have found that permit-to-purchase laws contribute to reductions in shootings. Conversely, repeal of the laws is associated with sharp increases in gun crime. Connecticut’s permit-to-purchase law, which was created in 1995, is associated with a 40 percent decline in gun homicides and a 15 percent fall in gun suicides. In Missouri, meanwhile, the 2007 repeal of the state’s permitting requirement was associated with a dramatic increase in homicides and suicides by guns.

“Of the thousands of Americans murdered every year by firearms, over 90 percent of those deaths occur with a handgun,” said Van Hollen in a press release. “Permit-to-purchase laws have been proven to change that, and we should be doing everything we can to encourage states to put these programs in place.”