Statement from the President on Senate Background Checks Agreement

I applaud Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey for their leadership on forging a bipartisan agreement around commonsense background checks that will make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun.

This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger. But the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress. It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.

***

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) released the following statement today regarding a proposal by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) to expand background checks for gun purchases:

“The Manchin-Toomey proposal is a good faith but unworkable plan. The proposal will impose new taxes and unreasonable burdens on law-abiding citizens. The agreement also prioritizes collecting records over protecting citizens. As gun control special interest groups admit, the proposal expands the government’s powers to record sales of firearms at the expense of expanding the scope of background checks. This is the wrong approach. Preventing sales to dangerous persons, not collecting receipts, will save lives.

“The proposal also unwisely expands the government’s power to regulate and control the sales of firearms. A government takeover of gun shows will open more loopholes than it closes. Instead of paying a gun show tax, gun owners will simply handle those transactions elsewhere. The Manchin-Toomey proposal, unfortunately, trades a workable way to improve access the NICS database for a system that is not workable and will be extremely difficult to pass Congress and become law.”

***

Underpinning most of the arguments is a similar idea, usually from conservatives: that universal background checks aren’t worth an expansion of government power.

Few prosecutions of denied gun buyers. Created under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and implemented in 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System allows licensed gun sellers to check with the FBI, as required by law, before making a sale. While background checks have prevented tens of thousands of unlawful gun sales each year, opponents have said that the government doesn’t prosecute enough attempted buyers who are turned away. “The law right now is a failure the way it’s working,” National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has said. According to Justice Department statistics supplied by the office of Sen. John Cornyn, out of more than 76,000 denials in 2010, 62 were referred for prosecution, and 13 resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts. Cornyn and LaPierre argued this point at a February hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on guns…

They’re an invasion of privacy. As opponents of gun control warn about privacy issues, background checks are tangled up with another proposal, that records of gun sales must be kept. In a March 22 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, six GOP senators, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, warned that they would oppose any measures that involved “government surveillance.” While it’s not entirely clear what policy those senators had in mind, the American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about both records and background checks. “You just worry that you’re going to see searches of the databases and an expansion for purposes that were not intended when the information was collected,” Chris Calabrese, an ACLU privacy lobbyist, told The Daily Caller last week. Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has made it clear that a “national gun registry” is illegal and won’t be part of any Democratic gun bill.

They might be too broad. Another concern raised by the ACLU’s Calabrese was that, if a “transfer” of guns is defined too broadly, people with good intentions could unwittingly become criminals. “You worry about, in essence, a criminal justice trap where a lawful gun owner who wants to obey the law inadvertently runs afoul of the criminal law. … They don’t intend to transfer a gun or they don’t think that’s what they’re doing, but under the law they can be defined as making a transfer,” Calabrese told The Daily Caller. The Heritage Foundation has said it is wary of any bill that would ban loaning guns to friends at gun ranges or on hunting trips.

***

“There’s nothing in this legislation that addresses the fact pattern at Sandy Hook,” a senior Senate aide told me on the phone.

The aide explains that the bill expands on the background-check system already in place, but that the system doesn’t work properly.

“They are expanding on a broken system that we know will fail,” says the aide…

So how does one explain the legislation? “It’s clearly—Congress wanted to do something after what happened at Sandy Hook,” the aide explains. “They wanted to do something.”

***

The Manchin-Toomey bill would require background checks for people who buy firearms from private sellers (i.e., sellers who are not federally licensed dealers) at gun shows or anywhere else if the transaction is initiated online. Since Manchin describes that requirement as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre, you might reasonably surmise that Lanza bought the rifle he used in the attack from a private seller at a gun show or after seeing it advertised online. But you would be wrong, since the rifle belonged to Lanza’s mother, who purchased it legally from a federally licensed gun dealer after passing a background check. And if Lanza had tried to buy a gun on his own, it looks like he also would have passed a background check, since it seems he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record, which is typically the case for mass shooters.

Hence it is hard to see a logical connection between the Newtown murders and the proposal offered by Manchin and Toomey. But that does not matter, because it makes them feel as if they are doing something to prevent such crimes. And isn’t that what laws are for, to make legislators feel better?

***

Universal background checks are a perfectly good idea, except that they won’t stop the burglar who recently cleaned out our house of all our legally purchased rifles and shotguns, including an antique that had belonged to my great-grandfather, who, as sheriff of Barnwell County, S.C., confiscated the gun from the triple murderer he tracked for three days and finally killed. (I want that gun back, please.)…

In a country with an estimated 250 million to 300 million guns, imposing new laws on honest people is problematic and bureaucratically complicated. Add to the conundrum our politics of individual freedom combined with the exploitation of emotion to craft what is likely an impotent solution, and it is little wonder our congressional leadership is bamboozled.

The fact is that crazy people who would commit a Newtown-type massacre constitute an infinitesimal percentage of the population. Criminals will always have guns, as the murderer on death row told me when I first wrote about this issue 30 years ago. And forcing law-abiding gun owners to submit to new regulations will not prevent another Newtown or Aurora or Columbine.

This is not to say we should do nothing. But, lest we delude ourselves, whatever we do we will do because it makes us feel better.

***

Via CNS.

***