A Democratic congressional candidate was able to buy an assault rifle without going through any kind of background check, according to a video from his campaign.
In the video, Dan Helmer, an Army veteran running for the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in Virginia, bought a semiautomatic weapon that he said is “functionally similar” to what he used in theaters of war — all without a background check. “This is the same gun, same magazine I had in Afghanistan,” Helmer said in the video. (That’s likely not totally true — for one, guns used in the military typically have automatic capabilities that civilian firearms do not.)
Helmer claimed he made the purchase in under 10 minutes at a gun show in Chantilly, Virginia, less than two miles away from a public school.
“If I buy from you, do I have to register and do a background check and all that stuff?” Helmer asked in the video.
“No,” the seller responded.
Helmer asked if he needed to show his Social Security number or anything else, and he was told he only needed to produce a Virginia ID. As he kept pressing, the seller said, “Are you a felon?” Helmer responded that he wasn’t, and he soon walked away with the gun.
Helmer is in a six-way Democratic primary to run against Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in Virginia’s 10th District. According to Jenna Portnoy at the Washington Post, Democrats in the primary have been trying to one-up one another in calls for stricter gun laws. Comstock has backed looser gun laws, previously getting an A rating from the NRA.
The video is edited and cut, so it’s hard to verify all of it. But it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s totally accurate — since what it shows is very much possible under current US gun laws.
Closing this loophole could save lives
What Helmer supposedly took advantage of is the private sales loophole: If someone purchases a gun from a private seller — such as a friend, family member, or even a stranger who’s not a licensed gun dealer — then no background check is required.
This is often mischaracterized as the gun show sale loophole, under the assumption that people can simply go to a gun show and buy a gun without going through a background check. But licensed dealers at gun shows still have to carry out a background check. The actual loophole is that someone can meet with a private seller at a gun show — or, increasingly, over the internet — and buy a firearm from that person without a background check. In other words, the gun show doesn’t create a loophole; the private seller does.
Gun control activists have long supported closing the private sales loophole by instituting what they call universal background checks, which would require background checks with every sale or transfer. This is a very popular idea; a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 90 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans support universal background checks.
But a law instituting universal background checks — and tools that would be needed to enforce such laws, such as a gun transfer registry or database — hasn’t passed Congress. Some states, but not Virginia, have instituted such laws.
America suffers an extraordinary amount of gun violence compared to its developed peers, with some data showing that it has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times as Sweden, and nearly 16 times as Germany. The US also has the weakest gun laws in the developed world.
Stronger gun laws could help bring down the death toll. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. The review suggested that no one policy seems to have a big effect by itself, but a collection of gun restrictions can produce a significant effect over time.
For now, though, America doesn’t even require a background check for all gun purchases.
For more on America’s gun laws, read Vox’s explainer.