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Would background checks have stopped recent mass shootings? Probably not

Would background checks have mattered?

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    Would background checks have mattered?

Would background checks have mattered? 01:38

Story highlights

  • Mass shootings have ignited public sentiment for some kind of new gun control
  • Examples of gunmen in recent mass shootings suggest background checks not a panacea.
  • The Virginia Tech case is one where a background check might have made a difference
  • Gun rights advocates oppose universal checks, any new record-keeping requirement

Newtown. Aurora. Columbine. Tucson. Virginia Tech.

The tragic shootings in each of these and other towns have ignited public sentiment for some kind of gun reforms and fired up gun advocates to protect what they see as their constitutional right of easy access to firearms.

According to recent polls, more than 90% of Americans favor some form of background checks for firearm purchases, particularly at gun shows, but the efficacy of the measure remains dubious by both law enforcement and gun control advocates.

But, as Congress wrestles with what new measures -- if any -- should be passed to control gun purchases, one question looms:

In those and other mass shootings, would background checks have made any difference?

How background checks work

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Looking back, background checks did not stop three mass shootings that claimed more than 40 lives since 2011.

In the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people, mostly children, were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza used two semi-automatic handguns and a semi-automatic rifle. He didn't get a background check for those weapons. They were legally purchased and registered to his mother, Nancy Lanza, who was his first victim.

Last July, James Holmes walked into a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado, and began shooting. His AR-15, two 9 mm Glocks, .40 caliber pistol and 12-guage shotgun were all purchased legally, after his name was submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Twelve people were killed.

The same is true with Jared Loughner, who shot then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people, killing six, in Tucson in January 2011. His application was never flagged when run through NICS -- the database from which potential firearms buyers are determined legally eligible to purchase a gun.

NRA 'plucks the bird' to weaken gun proposals

"The one shooter that might have been prevented by background checks and was not was the Virginia Tech shooter because he had, in fact, been adjudicated to be potentially violent," said National Rifle Association President David Keene.

Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in 2007 on the picturesque Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, had been deemed mentally ill by a judge, which is one of the criteria used to disqualify certain people trying to buy a gun. Others who could be potentially disqualified include convicted felons, fugitives, drug addicts and domestic abusers.

Cho's case apparently slipped through the cracks and the state of Virginia has since instituted a series of reforms in its reporting procedures to NICS as a result.

Cho might have been stopped if universal checks were the law, Vice President Joe Biden said.

"One of the problems that was pointed out here was that there was an adjudication of the young man that committed the crime at Virginia Tech, and yet he was able to go out and purchase two weapons," Biden said in January.

The current Senate proposed bill called the "Fix Gun Checks Act" seeks to remedy the database deficiencies by forcing the states to become more involved in submitting names into the existing system.

The sticking point with the proposal for many anti-gun control proponents is the requirement that background checks cover every firearm sold, whether at gun shows, the Internet or private sales.

Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, announced Wednesday a bipartisan deal on background checks for gun shows and Internet sales, but a similar agreement in the House is still unlikely.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who wrote the latest Senate bill, said his was an expansion of the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that banned military-style assault weapons for a decade before it expired.

"Every major expert believes that universal background checks will save lots of lives," Schumer told CNN.

He added that 1.7 million people "have gone to firearms dealers and been denied guns because they were felons or adjudicated mentally ill because of the Brady law."

But the NRA's Keene disagreed.

"The tipping point for all this gun control talk about background checks is actually an example of how background checks don't matter... [the] killer will find a way to get a gun even if he kills the owner."

      Gun control debate

    • Gun rights and gun control advocates largely agree there should be restrictions on mentally ill people obtaining firearms. The case of Myron Fletcher illustrates how difficult it is to put that into practice.
    • Six months after a gunman burst into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and slaughtered 20 children and killed six others, promises of stricter national gun control laws remain largely unfulfilled.
    • An undated photo of murder suspect Elliot Rodger is seen at a press conference by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff in Goleta, California May 24, 2014. Rodger, 22, went on a rampage in Isla Vista near the University of California at Santa Barbara campus, stabbed three people to death at his apartment before shooting to death three more in a terrorizing crime spree through the neighborhood. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

      Next time there's a mass shooting, don't jump to blame the National Rifle Association and lax gun laws. Look first at the shooter and the mental health services he did or didn't get, and the commitment laws in the state where the shooting took place.
    • Melvin Speight uses a camera scope run down a barrel to check the rifleing inside. Speight has been with Colt for 7 years.

      The sign at the door of the Colt factory displays a gun with a slash through it: "No loaded or unauthorized firearms beyond this point." Understandable for workers at a plant, but also a bit ironic, considering one of the largest arsenals in America lies just beyond.
    • clip inside man spurlock gun ownership_00004707.jpg

      Morgan Spurlock's "Inside Man" gives CNN viewers an inside and in-depth look at the issue of firearms -- as viewed from behind the counter of a gun store. Here are five things to know about the debate.
    •  	US President Barack Obama is accompanied by former lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords (L), vice president Joe Biden (R) and family members of Newtown school shooting victims as he speaks on gun control at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2013. Obama on Wednesday slammed what he called a 'minority' in the US Senate for blocking legislation that would have expanded background checks on those seeking to buy guns. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The Senate defeated a compromise plan to expand background checks on firearms sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.
    • Jessica Ghawi

      As Congress grapples with major gun control legislation proposals, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and children write about the people they loved and lost to gun violence and how it changed their lives.
    • Many Americans and lawmakers are in favor of continuing or expanding background checks on gun purchases, but few understand how the checks work.
    • Still stinging from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, Connecticut lawmakers approved what advocacy groups call the strongest and most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation.
    • It took fewer than five minutes for Adam Lanza to squeeze off 154 rounds, upending life in Newtown, Connecticut, and triggering a renewed national debate over gun control.
    • A former drug addict turned anti-violence crusader, and a man who lost his father in a temple shooting. These are just two of many in the conversation.