Grief alters people. It can devastate and give a new sense of purpose. The murder of his son Daniel in the Columbine shootings has set Tom Mauser on a crusade against gun violence that, over twelve years, has yielded small victories and gradual change -- and plenty of blowback from gun enthusiasts, including the occasional death threat. But even Second Amendment purists don't seem to have a quarrel with Mauser's latest effort, part of a national campaign to prevent the mentally deranged from purchasing firearms.
At a sparsely attended rally at the Capitol today -- the number of folks behind the podium whose lives had been affected by gun violence far outnumbered the audience -- Mauser was one of several featured speakers who denounced the failure of the current background check system to catch "prohibited persons" who seek to purchase guns illegally. The gathering was part of the Fix Gun Checks Tour, a multistate campaign launched by Mayors Against Illegal Guns in the wake of the Tucson shootings.
Current federal law is supposed to bar convicted felons, domestic violence offenders, the mentally ill and others from gun purchases. But the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) relies on data provided by the states, and not all states are supplying full records to the system, citing various privacy concerns or a lack of funding.
"Some states say it's a matter of money," Mauser told Westword after the rally, "but it's an issue of safety for their citizens. They have a responsibility to see that these people don't get a gun."
After Columbine, Mauser successfully pressed for Colorado to close its "gun show loophole" -- shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, though underage, had purchased some of their weapons through an intermediary at a local gun show, where no background checks were required. That's still the case in many states; rally speaker Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, told of going undercover at a gun show with an ABC crew and buying twenty guns in an hour.
"Buying guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows is as easy as buying a bag of chips at a convenience store," Samaha said.
Neither Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho nor Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner were in the NCIS, despite histories that should have been entered there. Some speakers at the rally seemed determined to impose background checks on every sort of gun purchase, including transactions between individual owners, but at this point Mauser would settle for legislation that would make sure the federal database for existing background checks is as complete as possible.
"That's the low-hanging fruit," he says. "We have the names of people who have been mentally adjudicated, but we're just not putting them in the system. That's something we can take care of now."
New York Senator Charles Schumer recently introduced the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011, and today's rally is part of a larger strategy to get the likes of Michael Bennett and Mark Udall on board as co-sponsors of the bill. Neither one was present -- but then, there were no Second Amendment protesters, either. The people who did show up tended to have had some gun-related tragedy in their lives.
Maybe better background checks would have prevented some of their losses. In some cases, it clearly wouldn't have made any difference. But they still felt compelled to do something.
Twelve years after Columbine, Tom Mauser still feels the same way.
More from our Politics archive: "Tom Mauser, Mark Udall and the gun-show loophole: Why no deal?"
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