For years, the gun debate in the United States appeared over. The National Rifle Association (NRA) had grown to titanic size and gained such sway over legislators that almost none of them that had gained the group’s endorsement would dare to propose new gun laws for fear of losing their funding come reelection time. The NRA steadfastly resisted any effort to regulate guns in any way, and through the shootings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Arizona, Aurora, Fort Hood, and many others, nothing was done on gun policy.
But ever since the extra-horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, there have been signs that the national debate on guns is becoming less one-sided. Vice President Joe Biden had solicited ideas from all interested parties in possible proposals to strengthen gun laws and hopefully prevent guns from falling into the hands of sick individuals like Adam Lanza. Today, we saw the first real step towards this goal. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) unveiled a compromise bill that would require background checks before every commercial gun purchase. Background checks are already in effect for conventional gun sales, but this would expand these checks to purchases made at gun shows and online, and would require gun dealers to keep a record of all gun transactions. The only exception would be person-to-person transactions, which would not require a check.
One would think that a measure that has the support of around 83-87% of Americans would be easy to pass, but that isn’t proving so. Senator Harry Reid told Politico that he’s probably going to lose some Democratic Senators on a cloture vote, particularly those that reside in majority-Republican states. He hasn’t been trying to actively whip votes for this measure from those Senators, as many of them face reelection in 2014. He can’t afford to lose too many Democrats on the cloture vote, as he needs 60 votes to break it (though only 50 to actually pass the bill). He can probably pull in a few Republicans, such as Mark Kirk (R-IL) who has already said he’ll support the measure, and there are a few more I could see voting for this. Susan Collins (R-ME) might, and maybe Lindsey Graham (R-SC) or Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who have shown signs of pragmatic moderation in the past. And there could always be a surprise or two like Toomey, who is the former head of the hyperconservative Club for Growth. But the truth is that there simply aren’t that many moderate Republicans left in Congress, and there are more conservative Democrats whose votes might be at risk. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) comes readily to mind, as she has been fairly conservative on gun policy, as well as Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Montanans Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), to name a few. I have a feeling Reid will find a way to get to a final vote on the legislation, and if he can do that, I think it will pass.
I applaud Senators Manchin and Toomey for coming up with this compromise, and I agree with Toomey’s statement that “I don’t consider background checks to be gun control. I think it’s just common sense.” There are very few critiques to be made of the substance of this proposal, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the gun problem in this country, and there are several measures that have the support of at least a majority of Americans, and should be enacted in addition to passing this compromise.
First, we need to reinstate the assault weapons ban. There is no reason why any private citizen needs to own a gun that was meant for military use. Hunters and sportsmen do not require AK-47s to hunt, and they will not help with self-defense any more than a standard handgun. In fact, they may be even more harmful. Studies have already shown that a gun in the home is more likely to kill a family member than an intruder, and that danger would only grow more pronounced if assault weapons were allowed in the home.
Second, we must restore a 10-round limit on ammo magazines. These magazines, like the ones Adam Lanza used in his rampage in Newtown, are completely unnecessary for any private citizen. The only real purpose they serve is to enable the shooter to kill more people at a faster rate. Eliminating armor-piercing bullets is another proposal that has been made, and I think it should pass for largely the same reasons.
Mind you, I listed these because they are the two proposals that I think are most likely to pass Congress, because both of them have support of a majority of Americans in at least one poll. If it were up to me, every gun and every bullet would be instantly traceable back to its owner through a federal database, making it far easier to catch killers. Law-abiding citizens need not fear these regulations, if they use their guns responsibly. No one wants to take away conventional guns from responsible gun owners, we simply want to make sure that something that has untold powers to kill or injure is used in the right way, and not sold to individuals that should not possess a weapon of this power. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the gun lobby from inciting mass paranoia every time any gun regulation is proposed. So, while Manchin-Toomey is a good compromise, I believe it does not begin to address the gun epidemic. But compromise is so rare in the Senate these days that it’s good we’ve got at least one substantive proposal.