This was the week the U.S. Senate was supposed to begin debating a set of gun-control measures. Unfortunately, the calendar has been pushed back, a consensus yet to form around key elements, Harry Reid, the majority leader, now pointing to later in the month. The gun lobby has exercised its clout, even as polls show strong public support for steps aimed at reducing gun violence.
One indicator of the sway held by the National Rifle Association and its allies is the fate of a renewed assault-weapons ban. An earlier ban expired in 2004, the NRA long thwarting a renewal by insisting it did not work. Sen. Dianne Feinstein applied lessons learned in crafting new legislation, plugging loopholes and otherwise tightening loose language. Yet her work has gone for naught, despite the Supreme Court ruling that such military-style weapons are ripe for restrictions and the killer in Newtown, Conn., slaying first-graders with such a weapon.
The argument isn’t that an assault-weapons ban presents a comprehensive answer to gun violence. The object is to throw hurdles in the path, offering a range of proposals that together would reduce the likelihood of episodes adding to the slaughter, 30,000 deaths each year due to gun violence.
The same thinking applies to limiting the size of gun magazines. Yet that idea, too, has been pushed aside. Broad agreement appeared to jell around strengthening gun-trafficking laws, criminalizing all “straw purchases.” Of late, the gun lobby has been making advances with a weaker substitute.
Most discouraging has been the fate of universal background checks for gun purchases, now covering just 60 percent of all sales. Public support for an expansion, starting with gun shows, has been strong, as high as nine out of 10 surveyed. Even a majority of NRA members back the concept. Yet lawmakers have been wavering, the gun lobby deploying hyperbole about the paperwork amounting to a gun registry, paving the way for the government eventually to confiscate guns.
Not too long ago, the NRA supported background checks. Now it combines dire warnings with claims of ineffectiveness. Again, no single proposal is the complete answer, let alone without shortcomings. Yet the record shows that during the past two decades, the limited check system has processed 108 million requests and blocked 1.9 million purchases. Improve the system, for instance, in submitting state records, and the strong likelihood is that more felons, domestic abusers and those with mental illness will be stopped from buying guns.
Even as Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland have moved ahead in applying gun restrictions, senators from both parties now are balking at something as reasonable as improved background checks, with some Republicans promising a filibuster, many perhaps worrying about primary challenges from the far right flank. Yet as President Obama reminded recently, the government isn’t the threat. It has been “elected by you.” The expectation is that those elected leaders will come together to address problems as pressing as gun violence, striking compromises without losing sight of making the necessary difference, taking steps to reduce gun violence.
Of all the proposals in play, the universal background check is a foundation piece, essential to addressing effectively the problem. With so many in agreement, you would think a Republican senator as thoughtful as Rob Portman of Ohio would be ready to break with the gun lobby and seek a strong system for background checks.