Current federal law prohibits gun ownership by felons, those who have been committed to mental institutions, minors, drug users and illegal immigrants. Someone in an ineligible category who goes to a gun store will be flagged in an instant background check and turned away.
But if you're one of the disqualified, take heart: You don't have to go to a licensed dealer. You might buy a firearm from your cousin, a woman you met shooting skeet or a guy with a table at a gun show.
If you're in a prohibited category, it's still forbidden for you to buy a weapon. But there's no background check. If you don't tell private sellers, they don't know. We have a system to block gun purchases by people deemed dangerous -- but we aid and abet cheating.
A major part of President Barack Obama's gun plan is to mandate background checks for all sales, including private ones. The only exceptions would be for "certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes."
This remedy used to be about as controversial as the Fourth of July. In 1999, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre endorsed "mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." Sometime in the intervening years, though, he discovered that universal checks would merely help those "bent on destroying the Second Amendment."
But it's hard to think of a principled reason why the government should provide those barred from buying guns with a broad avenue for buying guns. It's like closing down police departments on Wednesdays and Fridays and expecting thugs to lay off as well. Either felons and other problematic individuals should be stopped from buying firearms or they shouldn't.
How much good would universal background checks do? Obama oversells them when he says this step is the "single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings, like the one in Newtown."
The killer in that case got his guns by stealing them from his mother, who bought them from dealers. The alleged killer in Aurora, Colo., got his weapons at retail stores. Likewise, the man who killed six people at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee.