Gun background check bill has bipartisan support in Michigan delegation

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Various AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are seen on a vendor's table during the Gun and Knife Show at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Taylor in 2013.

Washington — A new bill that aims to mandate background checks for nearly all commercial and private firearm purchases has bipartisan support within Michigan's congressional delegation. 

The legislation introduced in Congress this month would close a loophole that allows people buying firearms through private sales, such as those at gun shows and online, to skip background checks. 

Sponsors say the goal is to prevent sales to felons, domestic abusers and people with mental-health issues that would disqualify them from gun ownership.

With a few exceptions, anyone who isn't a licensed dealer would not be able to transfer firearms under the bill to ensure sales are run through the national criminal background check system. 

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph

Republican Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan's senior member in the U.S. House, is an original co-sponsor of the bill. 

"This doesn't take away the legitimate rights of folks who want to own firearms," Upton said. "Background checks are something I've always supported, and I think it closes some loopholes that got to be pretty glaring."

The southwest Michigan Republican recalled attending two Ducks Unlimited dinners last year where organizers raffled off shotguns. Each winner had to undergo a background check before claiming the prize, he noted. 

"If it can work at a setup like that, it should work at a gun show," Upton said.

"We have the technology today we didn't have before, so let's use it and let's deny folks that have a criminal background from being able to at least legally being able to get some of these weapons."

The legislation has 225 co-sponsors in the Democratic-controlled House, including six Michigan Democrats. 

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton

Michigan's seventh Democrat, Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly, hasn't co-sponsored the measure but "definitely" supports it, she said. 

"The Second Amendment and issues related to gun safety are very sensitive and polarizing but, wherever I went in my district, the common ground we always had was that if you want to buy a weapon, you should have to go through a standard background check," the freshman lawmaker said. 

Slotkin — who carried a Glock 17 and an M4 semi-automatic weapon while deployed in Iraq — noted members of the military and Central Intelligence Agency must undergo the same background checks before weapons training. 

Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, have sponsored a companion bill in the Senate, where the legislation is expected to face resistance from GOP lawmakers.

The National Rifle Association opposes the legislation, as it has similar measures in the past.

“So-called universal background checks will never be universal because criminals do not comply with the law," NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said by email. 

"Instead of looking for effective solutions that will deal with the root cause of violent crime and save lives, anti-gun politicians would rather score political points and push ineffective legislation that doesn’t stop criminals from committing crimes."

GOP Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton also will not support the bill, describing it as "more gun control." 

"While we have a shared desire of preventing acts of violence and protecting our communities, there are better approaches that respect the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens," Walberg said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn

"Our solutions should center around improving mental health care, addressing the underlying causes of violence and strengthening enforcement of existing laws."

Critics of the legislation noted that suspects in several mass shootings had cleared background checks, including the alleged shooter who last February killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

"You have to start someplace," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. "If we can keep guns out of one person's hands who shouldn't have them, we should be doing it."

Upton noted the bill exempts private firearm transfers between certain family members.

Those include loans or gifts between spouses, immediate family members, aunts or uncles and their nieces or nephews, and grandparents or grandchildren, according to the bill text. 

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills

The legislation also exempts transfers between law enforcement officers and military personnel acting in their official capacities, as well as transfers to executors of estates, and "temporary" transfers for hunting or "to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm."

Narrowing the bill to just deal with background checks increases its chances of making it into law, said Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, who is chief deputy whip for House Democrats. 

"Potentially, the kind of numbers that we get when we go to the floor could be big enough that it forces the president's hand, if we can get it through the Senate," Kildee said. 

House Democrats said introducing the bill in the first weeks of the new Congress demonstrates their commitment to acting on gun reform. 

On her first day in office, freshman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, sent a letter to colleagues saying reducing gun violence would be a top priority.

In addition to expanding background checks, she wants to look at consequences for people caught "fudging" their criminal history for a background check — a practice known as "try and buy," she said in an interview.  

"Nothing is taking place to prevent that from happening again or to prosecute someone who's breaking the law,'" said Stevens, who campaigned last year on promises to address gun safety. 

"There's consensus around background checks. And there's more for us to do."

Twitter: @nannburke