MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to turn now to the debate over gun control and the effort in the Senate to expand background checks. One argument of gun rights groups against such an expansion is that the federal government isn't doing a good job of enforcing laws already on the books. They point out few people caught trying to buy a gun illegally are ever prosecuted. But supporters of tighter gun control say that argument misses the point.
NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Imagine you're 16 years old and you want to buy a six-pack of beer. So, you get a fake ID, walk into a liquor store, and lo and behold, the sharp cashier on duty throws your fake ID back in your face and says: Nice try, kid. If he doesn't call the cops on you and you don't get prosecuted, did the law work? Some people would argue, yeah, because you didn't get your beer. That's what Mark Jones says. He's a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
MARK JONES: Same with background checks, when someone goes into a gun store and lies on a federal form, the proprietor tells them: You didn't pass, leave my store. A preventative effect has been achieved because the guy didn't get the gun.
CHANG: So even if the gun buyer isn't prosecuted later, Jones says the background check has still done its job. Federal data show that in 2010, someone lied on a federal form and failed a background check more than 76,000 times. And only 44 of those people were prosecuted, because law enforcement officials say it's a low-priority crime. That's appalling to Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. He says we need to focus on getting more prosecutions going, not on expanding background checks.
SENATOR TED CRUZ: And I intend to introduce legislation to increase the resources and direct the Department of Justice to start doing its job, to start prosecuting felons and fugitives who are trying to illegally purchase guns.
CHANG: But if Cruz gets his way, 40 percent of gun sales will continue not to require a background check. These are sales that don't involve federally licensed dealers. Gun control supporters say arguing for prosecution instead of expansion of background checks is a weird argument to make for someone who otherwise seems focused on enforcing the law.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION (May 1, 2013): It should be noted that there is dispute as to the percentage of gun purchases that don't receive background checks. The Obama administration and several gun control groups maintain that 40 percent of gun purchases don't receive background checks. However, others say that percentage is bloated because it improperly includes all gun acquisitions, including gifts, inheritances and prizes. Some critics of the statistic maintain that the percentage of gun purchases that proceed without background checks is actually much smaller.]
DAVID CHIPMAN: It would be like prohibiting the use of radar by law enforcement to enforce speeding.
CHANG: David Chipman is also a retired ATF agent. He's now a consultant for the gun control lobby Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
CHIPMAN: The background check is enforcing the law on the book, which is if you're a certain person - a felon, a domestic abuser, a drug user - you cannot possess a firearm. To me, a background check is enforcing that law.
CHANG: Chipman says he finds it ironic that the same people who spent years trying to get laws passed to limit his agency's power to investigate gun crimes are now hollering for enforcement. For example, gun lobbies worked to make sure ATF agents couldn't make more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. And records of background checks have to be destroyed within 24 hours after a gun buyer's approved, which hampers investigations.
Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, says if the gun lobby wants more prosecutions, they can have that, but it's not a good argument against having more background checks, too.
ADAM WINKLER: It's kind of like the NRA's argument about armed guards in schools. I actually think it would be great to have armed guards in a lot more schools, and we'd have some more protection. But there's no reason why we can't have that and expanded background checks.
CHANG: The NRA did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The Senate could vote on the background checks proposal as early as this week.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.