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Universal background checks needed for gun control

Rifles foreground handguns are displayed for gun show participants MariettGa. Saturday Dec. 22 2012. As gun control talks heup Washingtmore

Rifles, foreground, and handguns are displayed for gun show participants in Marietta, Ga. on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. As gun control talks heat up in Washington, more than 1,000 people lined up Saturday morning outside the exhibit hall at Jim Miller Park in Cobb County for the Eastman Gun Show. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

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Updated: May 3, 2013 6:13AM

Don’t look now, but the U.S. Senate might actually pass legislation that has a chance to significantly reduce gun violence.

Some advocates of stronger gun laws were discouraged recently when the Senate dropped provisions to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines from legislation that will be considered starting next week.

But what remains — a bill that would expand background checks when guns are purchased and stiffen penalties for straw purchases — is perhaps the single measure that could do most to tamp down the shootings in America’s neighborhoods. Mass shootings with assault weapons are awful when they occur, but over the course of a year, as we in Chicago know too well, far more Americans are killed by handguns.

We need universal background checks, because we need to stop making it easy for criminals to buy guns. Virtually all firearms start out as legal, but gaps in our laws allow guns to flow from legal to illegal hands. Under the “gun show loophole,” no record keeping is required in private gun sales, which now account for two out of every five firearms transactions. A “straw purchaser,” someone with valid credentials who buys guns for those who can’t legally purchase them, can easily operate in the nether region where no records exist.

That’s a huge loophole, and truckloads of guns are driven right through it. Nine of 10 guns that are used in crimes come from the secondary gun market. A nationwide 2002 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 40 percent of the guns felons used were stolen or bought on the street.

It’s the guns that change hands illegally, in the shadows, not the millions that are stored in hunters’ rifle racks, or used to protect a home, or handed down from one generation to the next, that are at the heart of most of the gun violence.

Without a universal system of background checks, the guns will keep flowing. Last year, Chicago police confiscated 7,400 guns that were used in crimes or were illegally owned, but more firearms quickly arrived on the streets to replace them. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has likened trying to stop the torrent to drinking out of a firehose.

The NRA opposes universal background checks. It helped push through a measure that prohibits the FBI from hanging on for longer than 24 hours to records of those who pass the existing background check system. That makes it hard to spot a pattern of straw purchases. Lawmakers should not be swayed by the NRA on this issue.

Waiting for the U.S. Senate to act, though, is not enough. We need to act on the state level, too. Even if the U.S. Senate bill does pass, its prospects are uncertain in the U.S. House. Illinois, which already has closed the gun show loophole, would be wise to enact its own requirement for background checks for all other private transactions.

Prompted by a December ruling by a federal appeals court that invalidated Illinois’ ban on the concealed carrying of weapons, both houses of the Illinois Legislature are debating gun bills. The legislation that emerges should include a universal background check and a requirement that gun owners report lost or stolen weapons, which would help close another loophole.

Shootings are down in Chicago this year. Murders dropped 69 percent in March. Yet three people were shot dead and 23 were wounded by gun violence in the city from Friday evening through Monday morning.

On Monday, a $25 Cook County tax on gun sales to help defray the cost of treating gunshot victims went into effect. Other new ideas are needed, too.

But a background check at the time of all gun sales should be the No. 1 priority.

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