They started out with a lot in common — Joe Manchin and Patrick Toomey. Sure, one’s a Democrat and one’s a Republican, but they’re both conservatives, both longtime gun owners and both sport an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
But now the two senators share a bigger honor. In the long-lost, problem-solving spirit of the U.S. Senate, the Democrat from West Virginia and the Republican from Pennsylvania have come together to forge a compromise on background checks that promises to break the logjam against any reasonable gun safety legislation.
Granted, expanded background checks are only one element of what’s needed to stem gun violence. But Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told me it was, by far, the most important element. Yes, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are also critical. So is a crackdown on straw purchases. But if we did only one thing this year, said Lowy, universal background checks are the key. For a very simple reason. Because, under existing law, criminal background checks are only required for gun sales at licensed gun dealers. In a Jan. 16 speech on gun violence, President Obama claimed that “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.” Which means that at gun shows, on the Internet, from classified newspaper ads, or over the back fence purchases are made with no prior check on the buyer.
Those who couldn’t otherwise buy a gun are well aware of that huge loophole. Before the slaughter at Columbine High School, Eric Harris, one of the teenage killers, emailed his friends: “If we can save up about $200 real quick … we can go to the next gun show and find a private dealer and buy ourselves some bad-ass AB-10 machine pistols.” Closing that loophole, expanding background checks, is the most effective way to prevent criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, or others who shouldn’t have a dangerous weapon from buying one.
The Manchin-Toomey proposal isn’t perfect. While it would require background checks for all commercially advertised sales of guns, including gun shows, newspapers, magazines and the Internet, it would not require checks for unadvertised gun transfers, like from one family member to another. But, because there are so few of those sales, the bill is still a vast improvement over the status quo and as close to “universal” background checks as we’re likely to get.
Most importantly, the Manchin-Toomey plan destroys every phony argument the NRA has raised against expanded background checks. They say they don’t work. Nonsense. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between March 1994, when background checks were required as part of the Brady Act, and December 2008, they prevented 1.8 million criminals and other prohibited purchasers from buying a gun. In 2010 alone, the FBI and state law enforcement denied firearm purchases to 153,000 people.
The NRA says Congress should leave it up to states. That’s a road to nowhere. Since 1994, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, only six states have imposed universal background checks on all firearms sales at gun shows. Thirty-three states have done nothing. The rest are somewhere in between.
Next argument: Having to go through a background check takes too much time and costs too much money. Not true. Since 1998, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has conducted 167 million background checks. They consist of one phone call. They cost nothing. And they take less than a minute.
Equally absurd is the NRA’s slippery slope argument that background checks will automatically lead to a national gun registry which, of course, will lead to federal agents showing up at your door and taking away all your guns. Ain’t gonna happen. Background checks have been required at gun stores since 1994, and there’s no national gun registry. The NICS, in fact, prohibits retrieval and storage of personal information.
The Manchin-Toomey compromise almost guarantees that some form of gun safety legislation will pass the Senate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it then moves to the House, where Speaker John Boehner’s a captive of the NRA. Asked by reporters if he could guarantee a vote on such vital legislation, Boehner would only say: “We’re going to wait and see what the Senate does.” Sadly, in Washington today, that passes for leadership.