A coalition of House Republicans is willing to thwart the National Rifle Association’s opposition to broadening background checks for U.S. gun purchases. That may be President Barack Obama’s best chance for advancing tougher gun regulations this year.
Representatives Patrick Meehan and Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania are among Republicans expressing openness to expanding the background-check system, including mandatory screening of buyers at gun shows. “We need to consider any option that will keep people safe,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview.
“I’m interested in looking at closing the gun-show loophole,” Meehan said in an interview. “But I’m also going to be watching where this goes, particularly in the Senate and how much real effort will be put” forth, he said.
The loose alliance of Republicans, largely from urban districts in the Northeast and states including Virginia that have been the sites of mass shootings in the past several years, is also focused on regulations involving mental-health reporting of firearms buyers and gun trafficking as first steps in combating gun violence.
Expansion of background checks for gun purchasers is gaining bipartisan support in Congress and among the public while restrictions on weapons may confront stiffer opposition in Congress. A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 7 found more than 9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks.
The coalition of House Republicans is probably no larger than 40, according to advocates of tighter gun restrictions, though it may grow once such measures advance in Congress.
House Democrats last week proposed background checks for almost all gun buyers and requiring states to include more information in the national criminal background database. The measures mirror Obama’s proposal in response to the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
The NRA, which doesn’t support broadening background-check laws, is a formidable lobbying force on Capitol Hill.
The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA says it represents more than 4 million members. The group, which describes itself as the foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, reported almost $219 million in revenue in 2011, according to its tax returns. That amount included $102.6 million in member dues.
The last major gun legislation Congress passed was the 1994 assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. With Republicans now in control of the House, Democrats who support tightening firearms regulations will need votes across party lines.
“Right now, things that are more likely are things like, honestly, making the schools themselves more secure, the NRA approach, mental-health type things,” said Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, a Republican deputy whip.
The NRA once supported widening background checks.
During the Super Bowl Feb. 3, an ad aired showing Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive officer, testifying before Congress in May 1999 in favor of ending the exception to federal background checks for private gun shows.
It is “reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show,” LaPierre said in the sound bite.
The ad was sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group whose co-chairman is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It supports stronger gun restrictions including background checks for all gun purchases and limits on owning assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Since LaPierre testified, the NRA has changed its stance, maintaining that background checks are ineffective because criminals will find a way around them while law-abiding citizens will be burdened by bureaucracy and waiting periods.
At a Jan. 31 breakfast in Washington with reporters, NRA President David Keene expressed skepticism that expanding the system to sales at gun shows would cut down on violence. He showed more concern about mandatory background checks on private transfers of guns between family members and neighbors and any attempt to create a federal registry of gun owners.
In a Feb. 7 news conference outlining House Democratic recommendations, Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, said a mandatory system could exempt individuals transferring guns to family members and temporary loans for sporting purposes.
‘No Other Way’
Thompson, who headed a House Democratic panel on curtailing gun violence, emphasized background checks in his closing remarks.
“If you’re against background checks, you’re for letting people who shouldn’t have guns have guns,” he said. “There’s no other way to explain that.”
Representative Peter King of New York is another Republican who has said he supports universal background checks.
He said he plans this week to reintroduce two measures he has sponsored in previous years including gun background checks on people on terrorist watch lists.
Even some Republicans from pro-gun-rights states are lining up in favor of expanded background checks.
“Universal background checks possibly could be all right, depending upon how they go about it,” said Representative John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican. “If they’re going to create a whole big giant bureaucracy with all kinds of restrictions and limitations and delays, that would be a different thing.”
The NRA supports strengthening some aspects of the nation’s background-check system, notably adding more records of the mentally ill into a federal database on purchasers. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, echoes that position.
Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania recently introduced a bill to require states to report more individuals committed for mental health evaluations to the FBI’s background check database.
A 2011 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns said 19 states had submitted fewer than 100 mental-health records to the database, which means almost none of the most severely mentally ill have been identified.
Last week Meehan and Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, stood on stage with Democratic Representatives Carolyn Maloney of New York and Elijah Cummings of Maryland to introduce a bill making gun trafficking a federal crime.
Guns on Street
Rigell said in an interview he may end up supporting expanded background checks.
“Do you think a person who is a criminal should be able to buy a gun on the street? No. I’m working through this right now,” he said. “We start out on what we agree on.”
As a result of an exception that doesn’t require background checks for private sales of guns and private sales that take place at gun shows, an estimated 6.6 million guns are sold each year without such federal checks, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to close the gap. In those locations, fewer women are shot to death by their partners, fewer firearms are used in suicides and evidence shows less illegal gun trafficking, according to studies including a 2009 Johns Hopkins University analysis of gun trafficking in 53 U.S. cities.
Interstate gun trafficking was 48 percent lower where private handgun sales require a background check, it found.
Before the first major U.S. school mass shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Robyn Anderson, a friend of shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, bought the shotguns from unlicensed sellers at a 1998 gun show. The state subsequently ended the gun show exception there.
According to Rhonda Fields, a Democratic representative in Colorado whose son was murdered with a gun in 2005, the results of the expanded background checks law passed in November 2000 have been dramatic.
Colorado was the 17th-largest source of guns found at crime scenes in other states. Within a year of the new law, it fell to 27th and by 2009 it ranked 32nd, Fields said last week at a news conference in Denver. “That’s real results,” she said.
Meanwhile, victims’ advocates and newly formed outside spending groups are putting pressure on Congress to pass gun control measures including expanded background checks.
“After Virginia Tech they did nothing about gun violence,” said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily survived being shot twice in the mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg in 2007. “This is their chance to do it. If they need cover, I’ll get them cover. I’ll get families to stand up with them.”
Some Republicans may be willing to go further than background checks. Fitzpatrick didn’t rule out support for a ban on high-capacity magazines that Obama wants. “I will keep an open mind on anything” that will reduce violence, he said.
Last year Mayor Bloomberg formed a super-political action committee that recently spent more than $600,000 for 12 days of television ads against former U.S. Representative Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat, for her past support from the NRA. Halvorson is running in a Feb. 26 special election primary in Illinois for the U.S. House seat of former Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.
Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head from point-blank range at a constituent event in Tucson in which six people were killed, formed a gun-control advocacy group with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Steve Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer who donated $1 million to help start the group, said its goal is to counteract political donations of the NRA, which invested about $20 million in last year’s federal elections.
“This is not going to be a free pass as it has been in the past,” said Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, a group that typically supports Democrats’ policies. “Members who vote the wrong way on these issues, I think, there could be some significant political consequences.”