Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose state is still mourning the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school, is pushing for a federal expansion of background checks on gun purchases.
In an interview on MSNBC, Malloy cited strong public support for expanded checks and claimed that another, more pedestrian area of American life is more tightly controlled than weapon transfers.
"I’m a governor. I can’t get on a plane in the United States without someone doing a background check on me, but I could go places in this country and buy a weapon and not have that done. It makes no sense to anybody, quite frankly," he said.
We wondered if that’s true -- that air travelers are subject to background checks, and how it compares with the requirements on gun purchases.
First, guns. Federal law requires federally licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks before selling a firearm. There is no federal law that requires private gun dealers -- such as those selling at gun shows -- to do such background checks. Gun control advocates want the background check requirement expanded to cover those and other private purchases.
According to federal figures, applicants who are denied a firearm through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System are rejected for having a prior criminal conviction or restraining order, being a fugitive from justice or in the United States illegally, being under indictment or having been dishonorably discharged from the military. Others are denied because they failed to acknowledge their record on the initial form.
So what’s required of air travelers?
Malloy’s spokeswoman, Juliet Manalan, told us that Malloy was referring to the Secure Flight program, created in response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation of uniform pre-screening of passenger information against government watch lists.
The program, run by the Transportation Security Administration, requires airline passengers to provide their name, date of birth and gender to be matched against watch lists including the "no fly" list. That list, which is classified, contains the names of suspected terrorists who are barred from boarding planes flying in or out of the United States. It does not bar felons or other convicted criminals from flying.
"In short: there is a list that prevents people from boarding a plane, but no list that prevents people who shouldn’t have firearms from purchasing them," Manalan said.
So there’s a list, but is there a background check?
Not exactly, and not a criminal one.
"Passengers names are checked against the no-fly and selectee list via the Secure Flight process, but they do not undergo the fingerprint-based criminal history record check/security threat assessment process that airport/airline employees undergo," said Jeffrey Price, an aerospace professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Douglas Laird, an independent aviation security expert, called it a stretch to describe the airline procedure as a background check.
"TSA runs the data received from the airlines computer reservations systems through various databases, but this is not a background check by any stretch of the imagination," Laird said.
Still, there is a definite security element to the airlines’ process.
"It is basic information, but the airlines could use it for a background check. I believe that is what (Malloy) is trying to say," said Clifford Winston, an economist with the centrist Brookings Institution. "I don’t think it is the case that before you can buy a ticket, you have to undergo a background check."
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with the advisory firm Hudson Crossing, added, "It may not be a true ‘background check,’ but passenger data is passed through a database (possibly more than one) to detect possible terrorists."
Malloy said he "can’t get on a plane in the United States without someone doing a background check on me," while less oversight exists for gun purchases.
Background checks on gun purchases -- which assess a person’s criminal history -- do not apply to the private transfer of weapons, only to purchases from licensed gun dealers. And it’s true that many guns are bought legally with no background check.
But the Secure Flight program does not check people’s legal history in the same way. It compares passenger information with lists of suspected terrorists. It’s a security measure, but not a true background check. Though unlike with guns, it applies to everyone.
Malloy’s statement is only partially accurate. We rate it Half True.