How Obama and the Gun Industry Could Strike a Deal

Attendees play the Shooting Box simulation game using Airsoft M4-A1 rifles at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 17, 2012 Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Thanks to numerous White House hints and several Joe Biden photo-ops, we all know the outlines of the legislative package President Barack Obama is expected to announce Wednesday around midday: restrictions on so-called assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, more background checks, tougher enforcement of existing gun laws, better record-keeping on the mentally ill. It is no surprise that the gun industry, like the gun owners’ lobby, the National Rifle Association, will fight fiercely against any kind of ban on semiautomatic rifles or ammo capacity.

But here’s some news: The gun industry could live with closing the loopholes in the background-check system.

Industry officials, here in Las Vegas for the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, don’t want to talk about it publicly. They’re afraid of getting crosswise with the absolutists at the NRA, who thrive (and raise money) on endless controversy. Still, I’ve covered the gun industry for many years, and I’ve learned to read the body language. If the White House and congressional Democrats focused on background checks as a crime-control initiative, rather than on gun “bans” as a largely symbolic political gesture, we might actually make some progress on this front.

Let’s review the basics: “Assault weapon” is a confusing term for a semiautomatic, military-style rifle that fires one round with each pull of the trigger. (With few exceptions, civilians cannot buy a fully automatic rifle, or machine gun, which fires continuously as long as the trigger is depressed.) Shot-for-shot, semiautomatic rifles are no more lethal than Grandpa’s wooden-stock deer-hunting rifle. Banning “assault rifles” is pure symbolism.

What makes a semiautomatic rifle potent is magazine capacity: how many rounds can fit in the detachable spring-loaded box that snaps into the bottom of the weapon. In theory, restricting magazine capacity might be relevant to slowing—not stopping—a mass, random killer like the deranged young man who killed all those kids in Newtown, Conn. If the mass shooter has to reload more often, he might cause fewer fatalities (although truth be told, it takes only about two seconds to pop in a fresh magazine).

In any event, the president is not proposing to confiscate the many, many millions of large-capacity magazines already lawfully in private hands. So, sad to say, even with a ban on the sale of new oversize magazines, the next determined, suicidal psychopath will still have plenty of inventory to choose from. And remember: We tried an assault weapons/large magazine ban from 1994 through 2004. Because of loopholes, legislative compromises, and industry work-arounds, that law failed. Repeating this exercise has a depressing Groundhog Day feel.

In contrast, closing the background-check loophole is a sensible crime-control measure, which might not provoke much opposition from the industry—especially if it were detached from a larger agenda that smacked of hostility to gun ownership across the board.

Gun sales by federally licensed firearm dealers are subject to instant point-of-sale background checks designed to prevent purchases by felons, the mentally ill, minors, people with protective orders out against them, and several other categories of individuals who should not possess guns. The law exempts sales by unlicensed “private collectors.” The most common estimate is that a whopping 40 percent of gun transactions take place without background checks. That’s nuts. If you’re a felon or a wife beater, which route would you choose to acquire your next gun: the licensed dealer or the unlicensed private collector?

Requiring background checks for all gun sales won’t end the black market overnight or ever. But it will deter some dangerous transactions and give law enforcement another tool to shut down at least some shady actors. Background checks don’t prevent any lawful citizen from acquiring a gun. And here’s the kicker: Licensed gun dealers, from the Main Street retailer to giant Wal-Mart, would prefer if everyone had to come to one of their stores to acquire a gun, rather than go to a weekend gun show at the state fairgrounds and buy from some anonymous seller, no questions asked. That’s why my industry contacts are signaling that they wouldn’t mind terribly if a universal background-check law passed Congress.

So, as you listen to the president list his (expected) 19 proposals, sort the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps if that list were streamlined a bit, we’d actually get somewhere.

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