For more years than it is comfortable to count, the National Rifle Association and its abettors in Washington have forestalled even the most sensible efforts to confront our national scourge of gun violence.
But at the moment, the NRA is on the ropes as an institution. Its problems include a move by the New York state attorney general to dissolve the association over fraud allegations; an internal rebellion by longtime major donors; accusations of self-dealing; a failed coup by dissident members; a rancorous lawsuit with its former public relations agency (amid more allegations of fraud); and a dubious bankruptcy filing in Texas aimed at undercutting the existential threat from the New York attorney general.
All of which has diminished the NRA’s power in Congress. And with the pro-reform Democratic Party narrowly controlling the House and the Senate, and with longtime gun-control supporter Joe Biden in the White House, now would seem to be the time to push through some changes.
The NRA remains a force, so any legislation to rein in guns faces significant headwinds. On a couple of familiar issues, though, gun control advocates might finally be able to gain enough traction to overcome the gun lobby.
One is the closing the loopholes that allow some gun sales and transfers to be made without a background check, an idea supported by the vast majority of Americans, including pro-gun Republicans.
Sales through federally licensed gun shops and dealers already require the seller to run the name of the buyer through federal databases of people prohibited from owning a gun for any number of reasons (including having been convicted of a felony or certain domestic violence offenses, being subject to a protective order, or suffering from mental illness). Yet individual sales at gun shows, intra-family transfers, and some online purchases can be made without a background check, a bazooka-sized hole in efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who legally can’t have them.
And even a required background check can be skirted. If the government does not complete the check within three days, the licensed dealer can complete the sale anyway. While the vast majority of checks proceed quickly, some encounter incomplete records or other wrinkles that slow the process. It is foolishness for the law to say, well, okay, here’s your gun anyway. That very loophole enabled Dylann Roof, who murdered nine Black people in a Charleston, S.C., church, to buy a gun he was barred from owning.
Gun-rights advocates frame mandatory background checks as placing an undue burden on someone’s ability to exercise a constitutional right, and universal background checks would interfere with a private sale of a legal item between two individuals.
But that’s not the case. Laws bar certain individuals from owning a firearm, and checking the names of buyers against that list to determine eligibility is a reasonable balance of interests (much like a store clerk checking an ID to make certain a customer can legally buy a six-pack of beer), whether the seller is a gun shop or your neighbor.
And the federal government is not building a gun registry, as the gun rights people argue; the records of who wants to buy a weapon are kept by gun dealers, and by law the government can’t computerize the handwritten records if they receive them after a gun dealer goes out of business.
Further, they argue, background checks do not keep criminals from buying firearms. While the checks may not be 100% effective (by definition, criminals break laws), more than 3 million purchases have been blocked out of more than 278 million checks performed since they were first required under the 1994 Brady Act. Closing the loopholes will make a difference.
The House has passed two bills to tighten up background checks: the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would extend background checks to gun shows and many other exchanges between private parties, and the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which would give the government 10 days to complete a background check instead of three. Sen. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pledged to bring them up in the Senate, and President Biden urged passage of both bills during his address to Congress on Wednesday night.
Unfortunately, the measures still need support from at least 10 Republicans to overcome the inevitable filibuster by gun-rights zealots in the Senate. The nation can only hope that enough of them will find the courage to put public safety first and support these measures.
But to state the obvious, passing sensible gun control measures comes down to politics. People telling pollsters they support such laws is one thing; telling your representatives and Congress to put public safety ahead of the financial interests of the gun lobby is another, more crucial step. Reach out, make your voice heard.
— The Los Angeles Times