The public officials and activists aligned with Mayors Against Illegal Guns won’t forget soon the vote Rob Portman cast in the U.S. Senate last spring. The Ohio Republican voted against legislation extending background checks for gun purchases to gun shows and online sales. Mayor Don Plusquellic and others had strong words for the senator at a rally in Grace Park last week, part of a 100-day, 25-state bus tour organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Portman has been quick to defend the vote, he and aides arguing that broader background checks would have “no meaningful impact on the unacceptable level of daily gun violence.” The senator cites steps “that will make a difference,” including better enforcement of gun laws now on the books, improved reporting of mental health records to bolster the current system of background checks and stronger prisoner re-entry programs.
He adds that the proposed expansion of background checks “would not have prevented the heartbreaking loss of life we saw in Newtown.”
The senator is right. Yet the support for extending background checks isn’t driven by the thought that this step alone provides some sweeping answer. The question is whether wider background checks would be helpful, or one part of a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence.
It is worth repeating that background checks have stopped nearly 2 million prohibited gun sales. More, FBI numbers show that three-quarters of the denials have involved people convicted of a crime or fugitives from justice. So, criminals are stopped by the checks. Do they then go elsewhere in pursuit of a gun? All the more reason to expand the practice, throwing up further barriers.
In arguing for improved reporting of mental health records, an area in which Ohio lags behind the national average, Portman actually makes a case for expanding background checks. Presumably, that step would aid in keeping guns out of the wrong hands, or mirror the objective of requiring checks at gun shows and online sales.
The senator worries about placing “additional restrictions on law-abiding Ohioans,” or those seeking to exercise their right to bear arms. The Supreme Court has affirmed that right, something that won’t change soon. Yet the court also established room for regulation of gun ownership. Practical experience with background checks reveals they hardly are burdensome.
Polls show overwhelming support for the extension, including 83 percent of Ohioans. What drives so many to embrace the idea is the common sense at work. If Americans are going to purchase guns, shouldn’t there be a system for evaluating the purchaser as a way to avoid potential trouble, or worse? And if the country is going to have such system, shouldn’t it cover as broad of a range of purchase points as reasonably possible?
To be sure, criminals will find other ways to get guns. But not all will, and better to have comprehensive system for background checks than not. That is the essential message of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. It was the message, too, of the compromise legislation, a Democrat and a Republican in the lead, that Rob Portman, disappointingly enough, rejected last spring.