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By Shira Goodman

Gun violence prevention advocates and law abiding gun owners almost unanimously agree on this: It makes sense to prohibit those with criminal records, those who have been adjudicated incompetent or involuntarily committed and those with active protection from abuse orders from buying guns. But how do we enforce this law? Through background checks.

Shira Goodman

That's right, background checks enforce the laws on the books. And we can't imagine any law abiding gun owner would knowingly sell one of his firearms to someone with a criminal record or with a serious mental health history or an active protection from abuse order.

But how do you know the prospective buyer doesn't fall into one of these categories? The only way to be sure is a background check.

We already require that any gun sale from a federally licensed dealer undergoes a background check. And Pennsylvania has gone a step further to require background checks for private sales of handguns.

Gun violence prevention advocates want to build on this solid foundation and make Pennsylvania safer. We want to expand the background check system to cover the private sale of long guns -- rifles, shot guns and military-style semi-automatic rifles. This makes sense and is supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, including gun owners. So, why won't the legislature bring it up for a vote?

has been sitting in the judiciary committee for a year, and while other gun-related bills have been voted on, Santarsiero's bill has not.

The provisions of the legislation also have been proposed as an

It is another good bill that strengthens the background check system. Stephens' bill mandates that Pennsylvania share its mental health records with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The Pennsylvania State Police has been sharing these records for the last year, but doing so is not required by law.

The Stephens bill would fix that and also would create an easier pathway for people who had become prohibited purchasers because of their mental health history to get their rights to own guns restored. We support the bill but the gun lobby is trying to hold this bill and others hostage because it is afraid of a vote on expanding background checks.

Background checks work --- two million prohibited purchases have been blocked by the national system, and thousands more by Pennsylvania's own system -- the Pennsylvania Instant Criminal Background Check System, which complements and builds on the national system.

In fact, the prime sponsor of a bill to eliminate Pennsylvania's system has now announced in the pages of this newspaper that he is working with the Pennsylvania State Police to find ways to share all of Pennsylvania's records with the national system.

Those extra PICS records -- including protection from abuse orders, juvenile records, and the PA missing and wanted persons files -- are critical, both for background checks and for the Pennsylvania State Police to follow-up and prosecute prohibited purchasers who illegally attempt to buy guns.

A strong background check system makes Pennsylvania safer without burdening law abiding gun owners. We sympathize with those who are concerned about waiting periods during busy shopping times, as well as with those who may have been improperly flagged by the system.

But we are not ashamed to say that we are more concerned about those who may improperly obtain guns because they have avoided a background check. More to the point, we are concerned about the potential victims of those who obtain a gun without a background check.

The United States Supreme Court has held that there is an individual right embodied in the Second Amendment, but in so holding the Court made clear that it is not an unlimited right.

As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

Background checks are constitutional, they work, and Pennsylvanians want them. This should be the area where gun violence prevention advocates and law abiding gun owners come together.

We need a willing partner in this work, but groups who tell their members that any change in the law is unconstitutional and the first step down a slippery slope are putting rhetoric, myth and blatant fear mongering above the goal of making Pennsylvania safer.

We welcome those who will work with us, but we will not be dissuaded by lies and threats by bullies who fear simple changes that can save lives.

Shira Goodman is the Executive Director of CeaseFirePA, Pennsylvania's largest gun violence prevention organization. www.ceasefirepa.org.


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