For supporters of gun regulations in the U.S., a reckoning is here. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, has released a package of gun legislation and plans hearings on an assault weapons ban. A substantial majority of Americans supports universal criminal background checks for gun sales; smaller majorities support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
A group of senators, including Democrats Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (W. Va.) and Republicans Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), appears close to a deal on legislation to expand criminal background checks to most private sales of guns. Perhaps as much as 40 percent of gun sales take place in the unregulated private market, enabling criminals to obtain lethal firepower without inconvenience or oversight.
The main sticking point is private record keeping. Coburn resists requiring private sellers to maintain receipts of gun sales. Police officers say these receipts would come in handy when they’re tracing guns used in crimes. The National Rifle Association characterizes the measure as just one more assault on the Second Amendment.
Should gun-control proponents in the Senate give in on this one? If that’s the price of achieving near-universal criminal background checks, then yes. If ill-founded fears that gun-sale receipts will lead to tyranny compel conservative legislators to abandon meaningful legislation, the cause of rational gun laws will be damaged.
Senators appear to have largely resolved privacy concerns. Prospective buyers wouldn’t have to disclose any information to sellers. Instead, they could upload their personal data to a secure website, where a background check would be promptly conducted. Once expanded background checks become law, supporters of gun regulation can then make the case for more comprehensive data collection. Meanwhile, they’d do well to take the best deal in hand.
The path to sensible gun laws will be a long one. Senate supporters must do whatever is necessary to pass a stronger background check law. The nation needs incremental progress, not magnificent failure.