In my Sunday column, I wrote that Congress has made little-noticed progress on two kinds of gun-control legislation: a stronger system of background checks on gun buyers and tougher federal laws against gun trafficking. But the column was too brief to include much detail; here’s more:
The most important wrangling in the Senate is over background checks. Two Republicans, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois, are working with two Democrats, Chuck Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to see if they can agree on a bipartisan proposal. Those four names span most of the ideological ground in the Senate, from liberal (Schumer) to conservative (Coburn), so if they can agree it would be a big deal.
Under current law, anyone who buys a gun from a licensed dealer must undergo an instant background check. But if you buy a gun in a private transaction, even from a seller who advertises on the Internet, there’s no background check in most states.
Schumer, Coburn et al. have been working on legislation that would make the background check requirement almost universal. There would be exemptions for sales to family members and people who already hold concealed weapons permits, plus an exemption for guns that are loaned temporarily -- from one hunter to another, for example.
The negotiations stalled last week over the issue of whether a permanent record would be kept of every private sale: Schumer wants a record, Coburn doesn’t. The National Rifle Assn. contends that any records would turn into a national gun registry (even though gun dealers already keep records of their sales).
Congressional aides and lobbyists have been working overtime to try to come up with a way to split the difference: Deputize gun dealers to keep records of private sales? Hire a private company to do it? Give private sellers the option either to leave a record with a gun dealer or keep records themselves?
But Coburn has been firm. "There absolutely will not be record-keeping on legitimate, law-abiding gun owners in this country,” he said Feb. 24. “If they want to eliminate the benefits of actually trying to prevent the sales to people who are mentally ill and to criminals, all they have to do is to create a record-keeping. That will kill this bill."
That leaves the possibility of a fallback arrangement: mandatory background checks with purely voluntary record-keeping by sellers. Yes, an honor system. What good, you might ask, would that be?
Some gun control advocates say it would still be better than nothing. Private sellers who ignored the background check requirement would always run the risk of being caught. Law enforcement agencies could run sting operations against anyone suspected of flouting the rule.
"If we can get universal background checks, even without records, we're making some progress,” said Jim Kessler of Third Way, a former Schumer aide who has been working for gun control measures for decades. “With records, that's big progress."
Kessler said he thinks Coburn is sincere in his objections to record keeping on gun sales, but also sincere in wanting to strengthen the background check system.
"Both sides are making a real effort to come to an agreement,” he said. "Neither side's position is crazy."
Schumer and Coburn hope to work out a deal this week, in time for the Senate Judiciary Committee to act on a bill. In any case, the Judiciary Committee isn’t the whole ballgame; it’s only the first hurdle. Any bill, with record keeping or without, also must pass on the Senate floor -- and then go to the Republican-controlled, gun-protecting House of Representatives for Act Two.
Meanwhile, the gun control measure that ought to be easy to pass is a new law on gun trafficking. Law enforcement officials have endorsed the idea -- and nobody’s against tougher penalties for “straw buyers” who supply weapons to criminals. Well, almost nobody; the NRA says it still doesn’t see a need for any new laws at all.