At some point this spring, in an attempt to do something – anything – about gun control, the US Senate will re-launch a bill that would require people who buy guns from unauthorized dealers to undergo a federal background check, closing a loophole often referred to as the “gun shows loophole.” . “
If passed, this extremely modest measure will make the purchase of guns a little more difficult for criminals, people with mental illness and others who shouldn’t be roaming our streets with guns. . The National Rifle Association will cry out about an imaginary threat to the Second Amendment. And liberals who prefer strict European-style gun controls will voice their disgust at the measure’s painfully narrow ambition.
But limited as the Senate’s proposal is, “it would be the most significant expansion of background checks in 28 years,” Jim Kessler of the centrist group Third Way, who worked on the legislation, told me last week. on guns for decades.
And that is why the battle to succeed is worth it.
Under current law, anyone who purchases a gun from a gun store or other authorized dealer must pass a federal background check, a process that normally takes less than two minutes.
But in most states, people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers, including sellers who list their products on the Internet, don’t need to pass a background check. A survey by researchers at Northeastern University estimated that 22% of firearms are sold this way – as are, for example, weapons used in mass shooting in 2019 in Midland and Odessa, in Texas. (Suspects in last month’s shootings in Georgia and Colorado, by contrast, apparently passed federal background checks, so the requirement wouldn’t be a panacea.)
The House of Representatives passed a tougher bill in February that would require a background check of almost anyone who obtains a firearm, including through private sales, loans or gifts, except acquisitions of immediate family members.
But this bill cannot go through the Senate. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, said they thought it was too wide.
Manchin and Tester are not the only obstacles. The Senate’s “obstruction rule” requires the approval of 60 out of 100 members to advance legislation – and in the current 50-50 Senate, that means at least 10 Republicans are needed.
Thus, we can forget more ambitious proposals, like the perennial crusade of Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, to ban assault weapons. Feinstein’s measure won the public support of just 36 members of the current Senate, far from a majority.
Given these realities, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, DN.Y., has called on his allies to find a compromise measure that could attract Republican support, and the most likely candidate is a another perennial: the bipartisan proposal expanding background checks except for family and friends, drafted by Manchin and Senator Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.
“It’s modest,” Toomey admitted last week. Even then, he added, it would be “very difficult” to attract 10 Republican votes. The last time Manchin-Toomey voted, in 2013, only four GOP senators backed him.
And why could this year be any different?
Schumer’s Democratic leader on the issue, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, says he thinks Republicans might be mobile this time around because public support for gun control has grown.
“The authority of the NRA is fading; the impact of the anti-armed violence movement is increasing, ”he argued. “I think we have a chance.”
He is at least partly right. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed general support for tighter gun control was growing.
And the support for universal background checks is broad; the Pew poll found 88% of voters in favor of the concept, including 82% Republicans.
It hasn’t moved Republicans out of rural states, where gun owners are plentiful, well-organized, and noisy.
But the Democrats’ push is targeting GOP senators from urban and suburban states who need the support of moderate voters, especially women, to keep their seats – senators like Florida’s Marco Rubio, who is reelected next year. In 2018, after a mass shooting at a Florida high school killed 17 people, a poll found that 96% of Floridians supported universal background checks.
If Republicans sink the bill, Schumer plans to use it against them in next year’s campaign.
“There will be votes,” he promised last week. “They feel the heat. … They will no longer be able to hide.
So from Schumer’s perspective it will be a worthwhile fight – win or lose. And putting Republicans on the spot gives Democrats one more reason to support a compromise bill, even if it is much less strict than many of them would have preferred.
(Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)