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Alaska Senator's Gun Proposal Looks To Fix Existing System


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

A lot of the debate over gun control in this country has been about what's to blame and who bears responsibility. Is it gun owners? Is it the videogame industry or Hollywood? Is it the NRA? Is it our culture? We're going to bring you two different takes on this issue. In a moment, we'll here from an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia who considers gun violence to be a public health issue. He says hospitals can play a key role in keeping young people safe.

But first, my conversation with Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska. Senator Begich says one of the big problems is that people with severe mental illness are able to acquire firearms. He's helped introduce legislation to keep that from happening. He proposed the bill along with the Republican senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham. Begich says the bill would keep people who are deemed, quote, "mentally incompetent by a federal court from buying a gun."

I asked him to explain what it means to be mentally incompetent.

SENATOR MARK BEGICH: Well, here's an example. Requiring a voluntary in-patient treatment by a psychiatric hospital or an imminent danger to themselves or others, or found not guilty in a criminal case by reason of insanity or mental disease or defect. Those are examples. So the idea is not to stigmatize those that are experiencing mental illness, but at the same time, make sure of those that are risky out there and have risky behaviors - that have been judged by some judicial process - that they're not going to get a gun.

MARTIN: So you're obviously trying to make it more difficult for people who are mentally incompetent to get their hands on guns. But at the same time, as I understand it, you are against the idea of universal background checks. Is that right?

BEGICH: Correct, I think there is systematic - well, this is one example that we found within the system. The amount of people that have been who have filed to get a gun - you know, filed the proper paperwork - and are actually felons. And they actually are turned down but then we never prosecute them, which makes no sense.

So I'm a believer that criminal background checks, we need to make sure they're fully enforced. And I think there is a systematic problem with the current system and that was what we should focus on.

MARTIN: But why not support universal background checks in tandem with enforcing current law?

BEGICH: Well, I think when you look at the criminal background checks issues we have now, for example, people talk about the, quote, "loophole" in the gun shows. Here's the fact, and this is actually part of the current law. If you want to sell a gun with intent to profit, you need a license. Doesn't matter if you're selling one or a thousand. If you are making repeated transactions, even if they're not for-profit - you know, you're making a sale a month or something of that nature - you're supposed to have a license.

But honestly, it is easier to get inspected at a school potluck from a health inspector than it is at a gun show by an ATF officer to make sure you have a license. You know, a lot of people make it sound so easy - let's just do universal. Well, actually we somewhat have that now. We just have a broken system on how to enforce it.

MARTIN: You bring up the issue of enforcement. Have you thought about that in relation to the legislation that you are proposing? I mean, how do you keep someone who has deemed mentally unstable by a court from buying a gun from their neighbor, if they live, you know, in some tiny village in Alaska?

BEGICH: Well, it is a challenge. I mean, the remoteness of some of the areas, those will be still challenged that we have there. But I think you don't need new laws to do that. It's the current system that we have to spend some time on to examine, and see where we can put some resources to make a better system.

MARTIN: What are your expectations for where this bill will go? I mean, it sounds like you've got bipartisan supports. The NRA is supporting it. But do you actually think that this bill has a good chance of passing?

BEGICH: You know, what I've learned here after four years in the Senate...


BEGICH: ...any day could tell you a different story on that question.


BEGICH: But saying this, you know, my time here looking at this issue; here you have great bipartisan support as you look at the list of who's supporting. We're not people who have - you know, we're A-rated NRA folks. But we're also have been able to ensure that the mental health pieces, you know, we engage in the mental health community rather than just saying here's what we're going to do. I think that's an important part.

We've reached out to all sides on trying to bring this bill forward. And I think it would have a great chance of passing, if we got it to the floor.

MARTIN: Democratic Senator Mark Begich of Alaska. Senator Begich, thanks so much for talking with us.

BEGICH: Thank you. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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