We all knew that once the raw horror of Newtown had abated, the political will for gun reform would largely wither away. And that’s precisely what has happened.
On the merits, it should be a cinch to enact a law that expands background checks. In terms of popularity, it’s right up there with puppies and apple pie. According to the latest national poll, 91 percent of Americans want to mandate background checks on virtually all gun purchasers, including the private gun show buyers who have long been exempt. Even 87 percent of rank-and-file Republicans support the idea. In our polarized political culture, it’s nearly impossible to get that kind of consensus for anything.
And yet, this supposed no-brainer may wind up DOA. Not a single Senate Republican has signed on to the bill that would make it a reality. Not a single Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for the bill when it narrowly cleared the panel on Tuesday. And the odds are high that if the bill goes to the floor, Senate Republicans will – take a wild guess – seek to sink it via filibuster.
Something is wrong with this picture.
In the marketplace of gun reform ideas, an expansion of background checks is supposed to be the low-hanging fruit. The current federal background check system, despite its gun show loophole, has rejected more than 2.1 million gun purchase applications since 1998 – that’s 2.1 million potential wackos who have been turned away – and logic dictates that expanded checks would screen out many more.
So, the question: Why are Senate Republicans (and their House counterparts, who have no interest in expanding background checks) so flagrantly out of step with the American mainstream – and seemingly determined to remain that way?
Because when the gun industry yanks the leash, they bark.
Shocking, I know. The NRA, in its role as the gun industry’s mouthpiece, says that expanded checks would generate too much paperwork. Accordingly, Republicans complain that there would be too much paperwork.
The gun reformers say that everyone who conducts background checks should be required to keep records of the gun transactions. Law enforcement officials side with the reformers, because those records would help them trace gun-related crimes. But Republicans warn that such a requirement would constitute a bureaucratic curb on Second Amendment rights. They got their marching orders back on Jan. 29, when NRA lobbyist Wayne LaPierre, the gun industry’s front man, described the issue this way:
“It’s an unworkable universal federal nightmare bureaucracy being imposed under the federal government. I just don’t think that law-abiding people want every gun sale in the country to be under the thumb of the federal government.”
I think I see where he’s coming from. If a coffee shop barista sells you a cup of java, the barista keeps a record and you get a receipt. If a rental car clerk gives you wheels, the clerk keeps a record and you get a receipt. If a plumber fixes your toilet, the plumber keeps a record and you get a receipt. But if someone at a gun show sells you a product that’s designed to blow holes in human beings…nope, no records or receipts.
Hey, it’s right there in the Second Amendment: Freedom from Paperwork.
The NRA and its public servants insist that paperwork would be the first step down the slippery slope to nationwide gun confiscation. (LaPierre: “I know that the politicians say, ‘Hey, we’ll never use that list to confiscate.’ That’s a pretty tall order to believe a promise from people in this town right now.”) Whether the gun-fetish folks are truly that paranoid is beside the point. Whether they truly believe that any president would do something so radical, and thereby plunge the nation into crisis, is beside the point. What matters is that their rhetoric of fear is keeping the Senate Republicans in line.
In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, optimistic reformers talked of reviving the assault weapons ban that was allowed to expire in 2004. Not a chance of that happening. This Congress can’t even muster the will to pass a modest measure supported by 91 percent of the American people.
And it’s reminiscent of what happened in 1999, after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. Two of those weapons were purchased at gun shows, so it seemed a no-brainer that Congress would expand background checks by closing the gun show loophole. At the time, 89 percent of Americans told pollsters that the loophole should be closed. No matter; the gun industry worked its magic to kill the reform. As Democratic Senator Dick Durbin lamented on the day reform went down, “The Senate learned very little from Littleton.”
We can update that quote by merely changing the name of the town.
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