House and Senate Republicans say they are open to including youth felony records in the federal background checks for purchasing firearms.
It is an unexpected crack in Republicans’ longstanding opposition to expanding background checks and possibly an area for bipartisan agreement. But as in all Capitol Hill dealmaking, the devil is in the details.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican leading the gun legislation negotiations with Democrats, said he’s looking at closing the juvenile records loophole in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) used to approve firearm purchases.
The senators hammering out a deal and considering opening up juvenile records for NICS are Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republicans Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mr. Cornyn.
“If we reach an agreement, law-abiding gun owners will not be impacted at all,” Mr. Cornyn said Monday on the Senate floor.
The exclusion of juvenile criminal records from background checks came to the forefront with the mass shooting at Robb Port Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
The 18-year-old gunman, who may or may not have had juvenile court records, slaughtered 19 children and two of their teachers in a hail of bullets from a recently purchased AR-15-style rifle.
Mr. Cornyn has stressed that an expansion of the background check would not infringe on Second Amendment rights, which is a pivotal argument for winning GOP support.
“My firm belief is that the Second Amendment protects the rights of all law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. And we start from that premise. But when young men who obviously are mentally ill [have] their records basically protected because they were just turning of age … this is a sign to us that we need to do a lot more than we have done in the past,” he recently told reporters in San Antonio.
After the Uvalde school shooting, authorities said the gunman, Salvador Ramos, had no known criminal history — but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said they weren’t certain if he had a juvenile record, which is usually sealed.
“He may have had a juvenile record, but that is yet to be determined,” Mr. Abbott said at the time.
The uncertainty helped put juvenile records in the mix on Capitol Hill.
Juvenile records already are part of the background check to buy firearms in 27 states, according to the Giffords Law Center, a pro-gun control organization that tracks state gun laws.
These states temporarily prohibit the purchase or possession of a firearm by adults who were convicted of certain crimes as a juvenile. For example, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin mandate that a search of juvenile court records must be part of a firearm purchaser background check.
Mr. Cornyn has sought to shore up NICS in the past.
He spearheaded the Fix NICS Act in 2018, which mandated federal agencies and states to produce NICS implementation plans focused on uploading all information to the background check system showing that a person is prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under current law — including measures to verify the accuracy of records.
That bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump following the First Baptist Church shooting in November 2017. The shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had been convicted of domestic violence while serving in the U.S. Air Force, a record that should have been uploaded by the Air Force to the NICS.
Had the record been uploaded, Kelley, who took his own life as well, would have been prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing a firearm.
Rep. Dan Bishop, North Carolina Republican, said including juvenile records in NICS should be explored further.
“I don’t know all the ins and outs or what’s appropriate to do. But I do think that is something that I think we ought to look at very carefully,” he said.
Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, said that a “demented” and “evil” individual bent on committing a crime will find a way to access a firearm with or without a background check like the Columbine High School shooters did in 1999 when they enlisted the help of an older girl to help them get a gun.
“So you could open up those records, particularly in violent cases, but I don’t think it’s going to stop school shootings,” he said.