Background checks are infrastructure

by | Mar 26, 2021 | Politics/Government, Pop/Life

photo from ABC Chicago

For what seems like a lifetime, most of us have been anxiously waiting for life to return to normal. Two mass shootings in consecutive weeks remind us that regardless of how much we have grown to miss in the last year, not everything that is “normal,” is OK. These horrific events and the circular nature of the gun control debate that accompanies them has become sadly routine. The sequence is predictable, commonplace and usual.  But only in America.

On March 16, a 21-year-old suspect in Georgia purchased a 9mm handgun and later the same day began his rampage in and around Atlanta, killing eight people. On March 22, another 21-year-old suspect shot and killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, using an SR-556, an AR-15 style, semi-automatic pistol, that he had bought just days earlier. Both gun purchases were made at licensed retailers.

Is there something, anything, that we could do that could have slowed, altered or prevented these two young, likely mentally ill, people from obtaining their weapons? That is a rhetorical question. The problem with the list of possible alternatives is not that it is too small, it’s that it is too large.

“Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants,” is part of my favorite speech from President John F. Kennedy, given at the American University on June 10, 1963. He was talking about diplomacy differences between us and the former Soviet Union. That generational and perilous crisis was frightening and expensive to the U.S.

Fighting the Cold War for nearly half a century took infrastructure. Today, after four full years of anxiously waiting for “infrastructure week” to actually occur, we have a new president preparing to push a big infrastructure bill through congress. And again today, people think of roads, bridges, pipes and communications networks when the word is used. But the military is also infrastructure, like the enormous U.S. military that grew in the post-World War II years to combat the Soviets and the threat of communism.

Staying in the dictionary for a moment, the word, “infrastructure” means “the basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization.” Our schools, public safety systems, health care networks, and a good list of other things meet that definition equally well.

A modern information system to provide a background check on every person attempting to make any commercial purchase of a firearm is also infrastructure. Currently, that system is underdeveloped and underfunded, but it is definitely a basic, underlying necessity of this country. The support for properly building, implementing and investing in it has a similar level of support as roads, schools and broadband funding.

How is President Joe Biden planning to finance his $3 trillion infrastructure plan? In a word, taxes. How will he expect to pass a new tax plan through a Senate that needs 60 votes to pass anything? Through the budget reconciliation process that Democrats used to pass the American Rescue plan a few weeks ago.

Are you following me?

A universal background check system should be part of the infrastructure package and could be paid for by increasing the federal excise tax on guns and ammunition. And it can be done with 51 votes in the Senate. So, while the political class keeps debating the virtues and the perils of the filibuster, I recommend the Democrats get on with the business of the people.

Yes, I believe America’s gun crisis has been more harmful than the Cold War. Maybe it has not been as expensive in dollars, but far more Americans have died by home grown gun violence. And the “man-made” aspect of our globally unique gun problem was created not by some phantom in a faraway land, but by the men living next door. Presumably, those men are taxpayers.

The federal excise tax on guns and ammunition generated $653 million dollars in 2019. In April of 2015, Mother Jones published its investigation, in collaboration with Dr. Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, “The True Cost of Gun Violence,” which estimated it to be $229 billion, annually. Americans instinctively want to put all of their energy into arguing about how to shrink that big number. But growing the smaller number is the easier task. Let’s do that.

Our gun violence problem is not a pothole or a main break, but it is equally obvious. Maybe if we could view it as a fiscal issue like any other infrastructure need, we could actually make some progress.


  1. James Ford

    Most likely mentally ill. What type of b.s is that? Blame the guns not the person that shot another.

    • Michael Leppert

      As a general rule, I recommend reading the column before commenting.


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