January 27, 2021
By Larry Keane
There's a bill brewing in Virginia that's got great intentions but will wreak havoc for gun ranges and the state-run background check system.
Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds introduced SB 1250, legislation to require background checks for gun rentals. It's a first-of-its-kind bill that was introduced following tragic incidents of suicides at just two Virginia gun ranges. The parents of the deceased implored Sen. Deeds to introduce the bill.
Sen. Deeds is familiar with the tragic and shocking loss of a family member from suicide by firearm. His adult son was suffering a mental health crisis. Sen. Deeds' son attacked him with a knife, critically injuring him before using a firearm to take his own life.
Now, Sen. Deeds is ushering through a bill that’s already been approved by Virginia's Senate Judiciary Committee and under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee. The legislation would require the same background check that's required for a firearm sale to be conducted for each time an individual walks into a gun range and rents a firearm.
This presents a host of problems. Virginia is a Point-of-Contact state, meaning the Virginia State Police run the background checks for all firearm transfers. Just last year, the state enacted universal background checks. All permanent firearm transfers – both from a retailer and from private person-to-person transfers, must be completed with a background check. Sen. Deeds' bill would treat renting a firearm – the temporary possession of the gun – the same way a permanent transfer works. This would be required despite the fact the firearm never actually leaves the premises of the gun range and the person renting the firearm never actually takes permanent possession of the gun.
Most gun ranges already take voluntary measures to reduce the risk of suicide at gun ranges. While tragic, it is exceptionally rare, according to a Harvard University study. Still, there are methods that gun ranges put into place on their own.
Gun ranges sometimes require those renting a firearm to do so with someone else. Ensuring individuals renting a gun are partnered with someone else reduces the possibility of suicide when another person is alongside them. Other ranges have adopted more stringent voluntary measures, such as requiring a concealed carry permit or other proof of firearm safety training to rent a gun.
Still, that's not enough to satisfy Sen. Deeds' bill. His legislation would mean every single person renting a firearm would have to fill out the required background check forms and be subjected to a state-run background check. That's not just customers walking into a gun range to test out a new gun before making the decision to buy one. That's every single person.
This legislation would mean all those firearm safety classes, introductory classes and concealed carry classes which are now required to be performed in-person in Virginia, would be saddled with running each student who rents a firearm to run their background checks. It would extend to those who take an afternoon to Bull Run Shooting Center, a Fairfax County-run public skeet, trap, wobble and sporting clays course that hosts thousands of first-time recreational shooters as well as club tournaments. It raises questions for ranges that host fundraisers and offer firearms for use at each station and whether that would constitute a rental when a donor pays a monetary donation to shoot a course of fire.
NSSF is laser-focused on reducing suicide by firearm. The tragic instances of the two young men who took their lives and spurred this legislation is worth examining.
One young man was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. That instance, by itself, makes an individual a prohibited person. This young man lied on the waiver he signed at the range falsely attesting to his mental health history. The other young man was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
None of this makes the tragedy of suicide easier or acceptable. That’s why NSSF partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the nation’s largest suicide prevention group. Together, we've produced a toolkit to provide resources to ranges and retailers to have a "brave conversation" and intervene before a crisis. That partnership has been recognized as a real solution to a painful problem. The Department of Veterans Affairs has since come into agreement with NSSF and AFSP to provide these resources to veterans to prevent the tragedy of suicide.
That's just one step NSSF has taken. Since 2013, NSSF's FixNICS® campaign has changed the laws in 16 states and in Congress to get the states and federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to submit all disqualifying adjudicated mental health records submitted to the FBI’s National Instance Criminal Background Check System (NICS). That submission rate improved by 262 percent, from just 1.7 million records seven years ago to more than 6 million today.
NSSF wants to reduce the instances of suicide by firearm. While well-intentioned, this legislation injects problems that lawmakers aren't considering. First, a rental doesn't match the federal definition of a transfer, meaning the Virginia State Police won't have access to all the same indexes accessible by the FBI. This would produce an incomplete background check, since the state is relying on their own databases. It also raises questions of someone from out-of-state who attempts to rent a firearm. Federal law prohibits handgun purchases across state lines, but nothing bars rentals.
There are questions as to the access Virginia State Police would have to criminal and mental health background records for someone from any other state. This also threatens to swamp the state’s background check system. Virginia conducted over 780,000 background checks last year, with an estimated 42 percent of those going into a "delayed" status. The fiscal impact statement accompanying the legislation noted Virginia State Police estimated this would add at least 200 background checks per day, or over 73,000 background checks annually. When delays build, this turns into a de facto ban on firearm rentals.
Suicide by firearms with rented guns is tragic, yet exceedingly rare. This legislation has the greatest of intentions but injects serious questions that lawmakers must consider. A smarter approach, a proven-effective approach, would be for lawmakers to put their efforts to supporting the voluntary intervention methods already in place by gun ranges and provide the mental health resources to those in most need.