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Universal background check gun bills clear Michigan House

Michigan Democrats are moving to close what they call a loophole in federal background check laws. (Shutterstock image)
  • House Democrats pass gun background check bills in party-line vote
  • Bill would close ‘loophole’ for privately sold long guns
  • GOP opposes measure, first gun control bill since MSU shooting

April 19: Michigan ‘red flag’ gun reform plan heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
March 29: Democratic gun safety laws met with a shrug in Michigan gun country
March 27: Michigan is passing gun safety laws. Most counties may not enforce them
March 23: Michigan passes ‘safe storage’ gun bill; state GOP likens it to Nazism
March 20: Do red flag gun laws work? Answer unclear as Michigan eyes reform

LANSING — Anyone seeking to buy a rifle or shotgun would be subject to a criminal background check that could prevent the sale under bills approved late Wednesday by the Democratic-led state House.

The legislation would close what backers called a “dangerous loophole” in state law, which requires background checks for pistol sales but not for long guns purchased from private sellers. 

Democrats, who took control of the Legislature in January, called universal background checks the first step in a larger push to tighten gun laws — an effort given new urgency by last month’s fatal mass shooting at Michigan State University, which left three students dead and five others injured. 


The bills would not have stopped the MSU shooter, who police say passed background checks to legally purchase two pistols after striking a plea deal with a local prosecutor to reduce a felony gun charge to a misdemeanor. A felony conviction would have prevented him from legally owning guns.

Democrats are also debating “red flag” gun confiscation and mandatory safe storage bills that House Speaker Joe Tate has called "the floor" and "not the ceiling" for potential gun reforms this term.

The background check bills approved Wednesday are a “common sense” way to "ensure guns are kept out of the wrong hands,” sponsoring Rep. Jaime Churches, D-Wyandotte, told colleagues before the vote. 

"This package will not take anything away from gun owners," continued Churches, a former teacher. "It will merely be an inconvenience to you, the same way you inconvenience my curriculum, so I have to teach my kids survival."

Republicans uniformly opposed the legislation, which passed the House in a 56-53 vote and is now headed to the Senate for further consideration. 

“This bill will burden law-abiding citizens (but) do nothing to stop a criminal from acting when their evil heart has decided to act,” Rep. Jay DeBoyer, R-Clay Township, argued in a floor speech. 

“Not to mention, it will burden our police departments with busywork.”

Pistol buyers in Michigan must already go through a state or federal background check that is designed to flag crimes or known mental health determinations that could prohibit the purchase. 

The new legislation would generally require background checks for all firearm purchases, not just pistols, and extend existing misdemeanor and felony punishments for those who buy or sell a gun illegally. 

If approved by the Senate and signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan would become the 15th state with a universal background check law, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Background checks are already standard practice for gun purchases through federally licensed firearm dealers, who utilize the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System database. 

If the seller is not federally licensed, the legislation would require individuals seeking to buy a long gun to instead obtain a purchase license from a local law enforcement agency. 

As they already do for pistol buyers, local police would be required to issue a purchase license with “with due speed and diligence” after first using a similar state database to search for court orders, pending felonies, and involuntary mental health hospital commitments that would prohibit the sale. 

Under existing law, police can also decline to issue a purchase permit if they have probable cause to believe the applicant would be a threat to themselves or others, or would commit a crime with the gun. 

The legislation would also change the process for registering pistols, which is already required under state law. The bills would direct the firearm seller — not the buyer — to send pistol registrations to local police, a step authorities say suspected MSU shooter Anthony McRae did not take.

Updating a state database to handle additional background checks would cost Michigan police an estimated $200,000, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. Any additional criminal convictions could also lead to new costs for county jails or state prisons.

Under the legislation, criminal penalties for violating long gun purchase rules would be the same as for pistols.

Selling or buying a rifle or shotgun without a background check would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $100. 

Lying or making any sort of false statement on a purchase license application would be a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and up to a $2,000 fine. 

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