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Background check bill signals new era in Congress

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Smart v. Stupid

Background check bill signals new era in Congress

The United States Senate is now poised to debate a background check bill co-sponsored by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. The sponsors are remarkable in that they both have an A-rating from the National Rifle Association and Manchin is arguably the least-Democratic Democrat now serving in Congress.

But that's not the real story of Thursday's demolition of a filibuster threat by Republican senators (who had hoped to use it a launching pad to the White House.) The sound rebuke of Sens. Cruz, Paul and Rubio signals that the NRA no longer has unchallenged veto power in Congress. That's a big deal.

The four biggest reasons for the National Rifle Association's declining influence are:

  1. Polling: With 85-92 percent of Americans favoring stronger background checks (take your pick of a dozen polls) even contribution-fed senators don't think they can afford to ignore hometown voters. Last week's Pew poll found that the number-one issue being followed closely by Americans was gun legislation. Today, more and more Americans are signaling they will make anti-massacre voting records a litmus test in the next election.
  2. The recent Senate recess: No matter what senators say in public, it is clear that when they went home during the recent holiday, their constituents told them they now govern in a post-Newtown world. Voters must have told them to do something, because the Senate came back fundamentally changed.
  3. Lobbying by the Newtown massacre parents: Don't underestimate the profound effect the parents of the dead children had as they roamed the halls of the Senate this week. Everyone in Washington agrees that their impact was powerful and personal.
  4. A glimpse at today's NRA: Americans are surprised to learn that today's NRA exists almost exclusively to keep gun hoarders and preppers in a panic. Shocked, actually.

The vote count on the Motion to Proceed was itself notable. Usually, when provocative votes are taken, senators bargain not to have to cast them. But 68 Senators voted for debate. That's 8 more than needed. Looking toward the 2014 elections, senators wanted to be on record for moving the background bill forward.

If gun legislation continues to be a top concern of Americans and opponents of gun regulation are punished in the 2014 election, the NRA's era of effective control is over.

The bill, though, is exceedingly weak, more of a field goal than a touchdown. It closes a few loopholes, particularly for in-state and online purchases. Still, the conservative sponsorship of Manchin and Toomey is glaringly evident some of the proposal's "compromises."

  • It expands Internet sales of handguns to allow direct sales across state lines. Currently, far away online sellers need to transfer your gun to an in-state dealer for the background check. That requires the buyer to present him or herself in person to someone.
  • It continues to allow parking lot sales at gun shows, and all sales between individuals to family, friends or strangers without any background check.
  • It fails to do anything to prevent "straw man sales" where a buyer buys for someone else.
  • It fails to keep a federal registry of who has guns so that guns used in murders can be traced.

In fact, the bill only marginally increases the number of sales that will be subject to background checks. Still, it does subject more sales to background checks and make the checks one step harder to avoid.

But the bill also helps gun sellers. It makes Internet sales less expensive and more convenient for everyone. The bill reduces the cost of every online handgun sale by $35-75 – the cost of delivery to a local "FFL" dealer. It opens cross state markets to gun sellers. And it exempts concealed carry permit holders from background checks.

It is this last part that is the most troubling. Concealed carriers like to fantasize that they are community heroes when they are actually just people who are afraid to go out without a gun. Painting with a broad brush, they suffer from many more fears than the average person, are more likely to fantasize about blue helmets and black helicopters, are 77 percent more likely to follow your car aggressively and are almost 500 percent more likely to threaten you with a gun. They are the problem, not the solution.

That the NRA is opposing this bill is either more evidence of their intellectual breakdown, or a cruel and manipulative trick to increase gun sales by getting the bill passed.

So whether the U.S. Senate is really responding to the will of voters or just playing an inside game will actually be revealed by what it does about the next bill, S.52. That's Grassley's bill to end straw purchases.

Newtown mass-murderer Adam Lanza's dead mother was just such a straw purchaser, buying guns for her mentally ill son. In Arizona (for example) it is perfectly legal to buy a gun, change your mind on your way to your car and sell it to a "stranger" passing by. Prosecutors have to prove you intended to make a straw purchase and that you did. But you need only claim to be an idiot.

The Mexican government believes straw purchases send 750,000 guns to Mexico each year. That's equal to about 4 percent of all the background checks in 2010. Let's say another 1 percent of all gun sales end up with U.S. criminals. That's one in 20 guns sold. So you can see why gun makers don't want to give up illegal sales. They are a growing part of the arms business.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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