Congress, fresh from Easter recess, will face a political buzz saw when it begins debate on universal background checks for gun sales as part of poorly conceived feel-good federal gun control legislation.
At the outset, there is this: Universal background checks -- like recent asinine gun and magazine bans -- will not work, despite what the White House, the Democrats' leadership and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are peddling. They will not prevent killings such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The mentally ill and criminals we do not want buying guns are virtually invisible to the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System -- and if snared trying illegally to buy a gun, few are punished. Nearly 80,000 Americans were denied guns in 2010; 44 were prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Even the drive to ensure all gun sales are approved by Uncle Sam is based on the myth that 40 percent of all guns are bought from private sellers exempt from background checks. Everybody from Time magazine to President Barack Obama regularly trumpet that figure. It is, they say, based on studies.
In truth, it is based on a single 1994 random telephone survey that asked 251 people about their recollections of firearms purchases. Analyses put the actual private sales percentage as low as 15 percent.
Nowadays, dealers check buyers' names against NICS, the federal database of those barred from buying guns. If a sale is approved, no record is kept at the federal level -- supposedly.
But for NICS to work, the names first must be in the system. Too many are not -- nor will they ever be. For guns bought from other than licensed dealers -- collectors and individuals at gun shows, for instance -- or transferred between individuals without a sale, no background check is required in most states.
If the left has its way, that would change. Private owners and buyers, and anybody else transferring a gun -- grandfather to grandson, for instance -- would be required to meet with a licensed dealer who likely would charge to check the recipient's name against NICS. The government still would be barred -- wink, wink -- from creating a gun owners database, or de facto gun registration.
Checks on private sales already exist in California. That system largely is ignored and unenforceable -- as it would be in the rest of the country.
The problem is not private transfers outside government's watchful eye. The problem is that mental health and drug abuse records are not included in NICS.
Bloomberg's Web site, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, shows 23 states and the District of Columbia have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the NICS. Seventeen submitted fewer than 10; four, none. Forty-four states have submitted fewer than 10 records to the controlled substance file in the NICS Index; 33, none. Most federal agencies do not share substance abuse records with NICS.
None of that is likely to change. Advocacy groups oppose expanding NICS, citing privacy concerns and fears of discouraging the mentally ill from seeking help. The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Medical Association have threatened to sue to block expansion. Without expansion, NICS is a joke.
Federal Form 4473, for instance, which must be filled out to buy a gun from a dealer, asks: "Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective . . . OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?" Three of the most prominent recent mass shooters -- Jared Loughner, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza - had not been committed or adjudicated. They were invisible.
David Susman in "Gun Control Policy: Universal Background Checks Aren't the Cure-all People Think They Are" writes there are questions about whether NICS would receive all mental health data held by courts and state agencies, including, under strict interpretation, alcohol and drug treatment centers. Several states' laws mirror federal statutes that block reporting the very mental health disqualifiers required to make universal background checks work, he says.
"Because of this, many states have not been giving the federal government the information it needs to maintain a substantial database of those who are not eligible to buy a gun."
Given all that, we would be better off prosecuting those who wrongfully try to buy weapons, concentrating on protecting our schools and institutions and identifying and getting help for the mentally ill.
Without the necessary information, universal background checks are just more poorly conceived feel-good federal gun control legislation.
We already have enough.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.