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Editorial: A good gun bill yet to draw an NRA objection

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Over the last 15 years, more than 1.16 million illegal attempts to buy guns were flagged and stopped by the current federal background check system – usually because the person trying to buy the gun was a convicted felon.

But also in those cases, the mere attempt to buy a gun was, in itself, a crime. Was the person prosecuted?

In Illinois, the State Police could not say Thursday. But in Indiana, where so many of the illegal guns that plague Chicago originate, almost certainly not.

In Indiana and most other states, local police probably aren’t even given a heads up that somebody barred from having a gun — such as a convicted felon, a domestic batterer or a mentally ill person — tried to buy one.

And that’s no small problem. According to FBI data, people who fail National Instant Criminal Background Checks — or NICS checks — are 28 percent more likely to be arrested in the five years after such denials than the five years before them. They are often, that is to say, people looking for trouble.

A bipartisan bill proposed by U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA) would help authorities better enforce gun laws now on the books related to illegal attempts to buy weapons. It’s a smart move and – get this – even the National Rifle Association on Thursday had no immediate objections.

The NICS Denial Notification Act would establish an alert system to notify state and local law enforcement when criminals break the law by trying to buy guns. Those more local authorities could then decide whether would-be illegal gun buyers should be monitored, investigated, charged or left alone.

Currently, according to Quigley’s office, state and local law enforcement in 35 states do not routinely receive such notifications. That’s because the federal government does the background checks and the feds rarely pursue such cases.

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One of those states without routine local notification is Indiana. Perhaps you remember Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel telling then-TV talk show host David Letterman in 2013 that Indiana was a leading source of out-of-state guns used in Cook County crimes.

His comments are true more than two years later. About 21 percent of crime guns recovered in Chicago last year were bought in Indiana, where gun laws are more lax, according to a spokesman for the Chicago office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Illinois, in contrast, is one of 13 states where state police take over the role of the feds in processing NICS checks and thus it would not be as affected by the bill. Illinois State Police currently are supposed to report the name and address of a would-be illegal gun buyer to the local law enforcement where that person resides.

Are they doing so? As we say, the Illinois State Police were not immediately able to tell us.

But, given the increased likelihood that those denied illegal guns will go on to commit crimes, we’d like to see such Illinois cases vigorously considered for arrest and prosecution. State penalties can range up to seven years in prison and carry a $250,000 fine. At a minimum, Illinois and Chicago authorities need to know when local criminals try to illegally buy guns in Illinois—or in any other state.

A handful of other states are taking such crimes seriously. In 2014, Virginia arrested more than 500 criminals who tried to buy guns illegally. In 2013, Pennsylvania investigated 620 failed background checks, made 346 arrests as a result, and obtained more than 200 convictions.

The NRA, which usually blocks any attempt at gun reform in favor of enforcing current laws, had no immediate objection to the bill. We hope it stays that way.

Asked to comment on the legislation, NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said “The National Rifle Association has always supported prosecuting dangerous people who illegally attempt to purchase a firearm.”

However, Dalseide couldn’t resist adding a dig at President Barack Obama, saying “With firearms-related prosecutions falling 40 percent under the Obama administration, perhaps the congressmen believed this was the only way to ensure prohibited people are brought to justice when breaking the law.”

The Quigley/Meehan bill is not a panacea to solving the nation’s gun violence problem. But no one action will fix this crisis. The bill is a small but sensible step forward.

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