(Editorial pages) recently criticized my March 12 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee against legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would require all prospective gun purchasers to undergo a background check. It was suggested that my vote indicates I am opposed to all background checks on any individual purchasing any weapon. This is false, and I’d like to take an opportunity to clarify my position.

I believe background checks serve a critical role in ensuring that guns stay out of the hands of those not responsible enough to use them. Therefore, I believe we must refocus our efforts to make sure the current background-check system works to screen out the dangerously mentally ill. What we should not do is obsess about ineffective window-dressing reforms, or we risk putting symbolism over substance.

The mass murders in Colorado, Arizona and Virginia were committed by killers who passed their background checks. How did they slip through the cracks? And how can we seal those cracks in the future? The murderer of innocent children in Connecticut killed his mother and stole firearms that she kept in their home, which she purchased legally and for which she passed background checks. Unfortunately, Sen. Schumer’s legislation glosses over these gaping holes in the background check system.

If there was a common thread in the tragedies at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown, it was the mental illness of the shooter. No one wants disturbed young men or women to have access to firearms, and lawmakers should bolster the relevant safeguards.

The Schumer bill appears to be rooted in the belief that private buyers and sellers of firearms are not to be trusted. For example, in the recent bipartisan talks on background checks, Democrats quickly shifted the argument from universal checks to universal record-keeping, which is a separate and even thornier issue. Why is it that some do not trust law-abiding gun owners to make responsible decisions?

Unfortunately, legislation proposed in the Senate, such as the so-called “assault weapons ban,” focuses not on the perilous intersection of mental illness and guns, but on the cosmetic features of certain firearms. I wasn’t sent to Washington to pass another law that will not address the real root cause of mass violence. Recent tragedies across the nation confirm that we must improve mental health reporting for the background check program.

This is why I support legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would plug the holes in our background check system. Federal and state authorities alike have criticized ambiguous guidelines in the current system that fail to include many existing mental illness records. The NICS Reporting Improvement Act of 2013 would clarify outdated legal definitions so that we could more effectively screen out individuals who are prohibited from buying guns.

As an elected official, I take my responsibility for the safety and security of all Texans very seriously. I welcome a robust debate over the best measures to ensure that: (1) the rights of law-abiding citizens are protected and (2) guns are kept out of the hands of severely troubled individuals. I believe that fortifying our current background-check laws is a critical step, and I will continue fighting to protect the rights and livelihoods of all Texans.


Senator Cornyn serves on the Finance and Judiciary Committees.  He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.