CNN | 10/20/2019 | Listen

Fact-checking Trump's vague claims about US background checks

Updated 5:20 PM ET, Mon August 19, 2019

Washington (CNN) - When it comes to tightening gun control laws, President Donald Trump has been consistently vague on what measures he supports, especially regarding background checks. His recent comments have only caused more confusion about his position, and fueled questions about whether he is walking back from comments he made immediately after the most recent mass shootings.

While Trump previously said he was "looking to do background checks" following the two back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio earlier this month, he told reporters Sunday "we have very strong background checks right now." Some have suggested that Trump is flip flopping, but the President has not clearly laid out a position on background checks and private sales and his recent comments remain just as vague.

When asked Sunday what policy he would support on the issue of background checks, Trump gave a meandering response: he said Congress is looking into the issue, voiced his support for the Second Amendment, referenced mental health concerns and argued that current background checks are strong. "People don't realize we have very strong background checks right now," Trump said. "If you go in to buy a gun, you have to sign up."

Facts First: It is true that any company or shop that sells guns must put buyers through a background check. However, in the majority of states, private sellers -- those who occasionally sell guns they own and are not trying to turn a profit -- do not have to submit a buyer to the federal background check system.

Under federal law, anyone who is purchasing a gun from a federal firearms licensed (FFL) dealer must go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). These licensed dealers include anyone trying to make money by selling guns, or who sell guns regularly. They must be an FFL dealer and regardless of where they sell guns (online, at a store or gun show) they have to put buyers through the NICS.

Under federal law, private sellers not looking to turn a profit do not have to run buyers through a background check system. (State laws around background checks vary widely. In 14 states and District of Columbia, for instance, private sellers must subject each buyer to a background check.)

It is illegal for a private seller to sell a gun to someone who is not legally permitted to own a firearm. Private sellers cannot sell a gun to a resident of another state without first shipping the gun to an FFL dealer who will run the buyer through the NICS before handing over the weapon.

Trump seems to be suggesting (though his language is imprecise) that if you go into a store that sells guns you must go through the background check system. This is true. However, you are not "sign(ing) up" as Trump suggested. Rather, your name/identification is run through the NICS to confirm that you are legally allowed to own a gun.

When Trump talks about 'do(ing) background checks' it is important to note the difference between bolstering the current background check system and expanding background checks to cover more gun purchases.

The Fix NICS Act, which Trump signed into law in 2018, provides grants to states and agencies that give the FBI information to expand the NICS database. The aim of this law is to bolster the current system.

Other policies, like universal background checks and "red flag" laws would expand background checks. A federal universal background check would mandate all private sales be subjected to a background check. While a federal "red flag" law -- which allows family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to remove an individual's ability to buy or own a gun if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others -- would expand who would be flagged by the NICS.

Laws around background checks are complicated and Trump's rhetoric fails to address what policy he would endorse or reject.


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