Bipartisan effort to expand background checks quietly gains steam

Dianne Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban may be DOA on Capitol Hill, but that doesn’t mean that Congress is dormant on the issue of guns.  A bipartisan group in the Senate have quietly begun working with both gun-rights and gun-control activists on the issue of background checks, and may soon have a competing proposal to Feinstein’s bill that will address mental-health issues and gaps in gun purchases.  USA Today’s Jackie Kucinich reports that a Gang of Four are working on the bill:

A bipartisan coalition of senators is working on a proposal to strengthen and expand background checks for potential gun purchasers in an attempt to break the partisan gridlock holding up regulations on gun ownership.

Members of the group, which includes Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have declined to discuss specifics of the talks or of a potential bill. …

The nation must improve the system to encourage states to report the mentally ill and install protections for doctors to enable them to report patients who are “obviously psychotic” to prohibit them from buying guns, Coburn said. …

Last weekend, Manchin told a West Virginia radio station he was working with Democratic and Republican senators, as well as the National Rifle Association, on something gun rights supporters could back. Such a bill, Manchin said, “basically says that if you’re going to be a gun owner, you should be able to pass a background check.”

This looks like a fallback position for the Senate, and a fairly safe one.  Recent polling consistently shows broad support for expanding background checks.  A recent CBS poll showed 92% of respondents in favor of universal background checks, which include 89% of Republicans, 93% of respondents living in gun-owning households, and 85% of respondents either belonging to the NRA or living with an NRA member.  (The question was fairly straightforward — “Do you favor or oppose a federal  law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers?”)  That’s as close to consensus as one is likely to see on a political topic.  If a CBS poll isn’t to your taste, last week’s Rasmussen poll showed 53% of likely voters favoring background checks on existing gun owners, not on new sales but on being allowed to keep the firearms already owned.

Small wonder that Chuck Schumer calls expanded background checks “the sweet spot.” That will give Congress a chance to claim that they are doingsomething in the wake of the Newtown, Aurora, and Tucson mass shootings while bypassing the more politically dangerous action of banning weapons — especially since there will be no functional difference between banned and allowed semi-automatic rifles, and since murders by rifles of any kind are an exceedingly small percentage of the overall level of homicide victims.  Background checks would have the virtue of addressing the entirety of firearms, too, without pursuing outright bans based on aesthetics.

CBS and Barack Obama use the fallacious 40% reference on gun sales that take place without background checks, and the supposed gun-show loophole that bypasses the requirement.  As Glenn Kessler belatedly ruled, those are Pinocchio-worthy claims.  Dealers who sell firearms at gun shows have to comply with background-check and waiting-period requirements, just as if they sold the weapons in their stores.  Around 14% of gun sales don’t get background checks now, though, thanks to private sales.  In order to change that, Congress would have to mandate that people conduct background checks for private transfers.  That’s not as onerous as it sounds; internet sales use federally-licensed dealers as brokers to handle the transaction, and dealers could offer that service for private transactions, too.  It would add to the cost of the sale, but it’s not an insurmountable issue.

However, that prompts this question: just which tragedy would that have averted?  In Newtown, the shooter got his weapons the way most criminals do — by stealing them.  In fact, a background check thwarted his attempt to buy his own firearms.  The Aurora shooter apparently purchased his weapons legally, but didn’t have anything on his record that would have stopped the sale; even assuming that the Gang of Four expand the investigations into mental health for background checks, the only instances of mental-health assessments he had prior to the shooting appear to have been informal.  The Tucson shooter had an arrest for drug-paraphernalia possession on his record, but never submitted to a mental-health exam.  The background check expansion might be worth doing, but it would have done nothing to stop the incidents driving the public outrage.

Update: I’m with War Planner in the comments: “No problem with background checks; just no permanent registration of firearms.” But let’s be clear that these background checks will not have much impact on the kinds of mass shootings that are driving this debate, although they may help keep firearms out of the hands of more ordinary criminals.