In a sane, sensible world, an expanded background check bill ought to pass unanimously. In a sane, sensible world, background checks on private sales instead of just sales by federally licensed gun dealers would long since have been the law. After all, how can anyone be against requiring a professional assessment of whether a would-be gun buyer has a violent, criminal past or is dangerously mentally ill? However, unless they can gut any effectiveness of an expanded background-check bill, there are plenty of foes, mostly Republicans, in the Senate and House who are perfectly will to thumb their noses at their constituents in this matter.
Asinine. Infuriating. Despair-inducing. On the technical side of things, this is a simple, straightforward, easy-to-solve matter. On the political side, it's like half-a-zillion other proposals that can't get through a gridlocked Congress.
Current law requires that all federal firearms licensees run a background check on anyone who buys a gun from them. This is done through the National Instant Criminal Backround Check Systems, NICS for short, run by the FBI. Most NICS's checks are handled in a few minutes over the phone. By law, records on anyone who passes the check must be destroyed within 24 hours, a process that is a product of lobbying by the National Rifle Association. The dealer makes a written record of all sales and must keep those records for 20 years.
Private sales, however, including sales over the back-yard fence or sales by private parties at gun shows, are not covered by background checks. Nobody even has to show an I.D. And if a gun is sold to a just-paroled murderer or gun-point rapist, too bad. Even if the gun is traced back to the seller, unless it can be proved he knew the buyer's proscribed status, it's almost impossible to make a legal case against him.
My simple, straightforward, obvious, non-stupid way to expand background checks—without adding another layer of bureaucracy—would be to extend the existing tried-and-true system that has, over the years, blocked almost two million proscribed individuals from buying guns. Just require all private sales to be handled, for a fee, through federally licensed dealers. They would run background checks, a process they are completely familiar with, and they would keep records of the private sales for 20 years, the same way they do their own sales now.
No more record-keeping would exist than exists now. Opponents of this approach would have to say that they reject the current system of background checks. The one that tens of millions of Americans have undergone when buying guns already.
Please continue reading more below the fold about Democratic strategy and how gun regulations are being blocked.
The NRA and the other gun lobbies argue that this system is ineffective. But that is a bald-faced lie. It is effective, as far as it goes. What makes it less effective has been the gun-rights advocates' hamstringing it in the first place by not including private sales under its coverage. And those opponents are still at it, determined to strangle it in its crib.
Without such a sensible, effective background check proposal included in the gun bill, why pass anything at all? Without that provision all that remains are a couple of provisions that would merely do a little more of what's already being done, one of which is useless without an expanded background check.
It's been obvious for some time that proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are doomed in the Senate. They were slated for defeat the minute Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced them in January since it was known from the get-go that perhaps as many as a dozen Democratic senators were opposed. Once Reid and the Democrats determine their strategy and move a gun bill to the floor for debate, those bans will be voted on as amendments and they will go down in a hail of votes. If Reid's calculations are right, more then three-fifths of the Senate will oppose them.
Right now, the only prospect for passage, and that will be dicey because a filibuster seems quite likely if Republicans aren't presented with proposals that will accomplish very little and keep the NRA purring, is a three-part umbrella gun bill Feinstein will try to attach her amendments to. That bill includes more federal money for gun safety, heightened penalties and new definitions for gun trafficking and straw purchases (that is, buying a gun and giving or selling it someone who is barred from legal purchases), and whatever background check proposal manages to survive the neegosheeaytin'.
After three months, details of watering down the background check proposal have still not been worked out. Together with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the proposal's sponsor, had been trying to get Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to agree to a background check bill that would include record-keeping. But no matter what compromise was introduced, Coburn resisted.
The reasoning: Any record-keeping would set up a federal gun registry and that could be—according to Coburn, the NRA and other gun-rights advocates—a prelude to government confiscation of some or all classes of firearms. Schumer, with assists from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama himself, kept talking with Coburn but could not find common ground.
Never mind that a law that is nearly 80 years old requires extensive background checks on anyone who wants to own a machine-gun, silencer or "gadget gun" (like a firearm inside a cane) and requires registration of the weapon. The law has been revised but the registry remains, and in all those decades the only weapons on that registry that have been confiscated were taken from owners who committed crimes, people who aren't legally allowed to possess any guns, much less machine-guns.
As a result of the impasse, during the spring recess the negotiations shifted over to Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Instead of Schumer's tough bill or Coburn's next-to-useless, exemption-riddled one, Manchin's bill would expand background checks for all sales but with record-keeping restricted, as is currently the case, to commercial sales only.
Without some Republican support, even that weak, problematic bill would probably face a filibuster when what it needs, to have even a whisper of a chance in the Republican-controlled House, is 60 or more votes in the Senate. And that means at least five Republicans added to the two independents and 53 Democrats. Not even all the Democratic votes are assured.
Unless President Obama or Reid or somebody can induce a sudden burst of sensibility to replace the stubborn blocking of effective background checks, what will emerge as law when all the talking and voting is done seems likely to be a grave disappointment to everyone who thought that, maybe, just maybe, the slaughter of first-graders and their teachers would bring the United States a little closer to the 21st Century in the realm of firearms regulations.