Democrats Grasp at Straws on Gun Control

President Obama called for measures to reduce gun violence during a forum at the Denver Police Academy on April 3 Photograph by Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On gun control, Democrats are grasping at straws.

President Obama is in Connecticut today for what’s expected to be an emotional appeal for tougher federal gun control. Meanwhile, Democratic hopes for some kind of victory in the Senate have shifted to a new and unlikely Republican ally: conservative Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Our colleagues at Bloomberg News report: “Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Toomey began talks last week after discussions stalled between New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn.”

Obama is scheduled to speak in Connecticut, not far from Newtown, where four months ago a heavily armed maniac shot and killed 20 first-graders and six adults. Relatives of the Newtown victims are then expected to fly to Washington with Obama on Air Force One to join the White House lobbying effort as the Senate gets ready to vote on proposals to impose comprehensive criminal background checks, among other provisions.

Toomey, although a defender of gun rights, has indicated possible interest in a bill that would require background checks for almost all gun transactions, save those involving close family members and hunters who occasionally loan each other weapons. With federal limits on so-called assault weapons and supersize ammunition magazines DOA in the Senate, the White House has invested all its political capital in the background-check proposal. Under current law, only sales by federally licensed gun dealers must go through the FBI’s computerized system, which screens for felons, fugitives, and those who have been adjudicated mentally ill.

Here’s the political calculus, according to Bloomberg News: “Coburn, who objected to a paperwork requirement related to background checks, comes from a solidly Republican state. Toomey faces reelection in 2016 in Pennsylvania, which backed Obama in last year’s presidential election. Manchin was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the past, and his state was won by the Republican presidential candidate in the last four elections.”

For Democrats, that all has a surface political logic: Go for a purple-state Republican who might give cover to Democrats from Arkansas, Louisiana, and other red states. Just one little problem: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t sound very confident that he will even get the background-check proposal to the floor.

In remarks today, Reid said there should be “no running from an issue that has captivated America.” He alluded to a letter he had just received from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and a dozen other Republicans, threatening to filibuster the Obama-backed legislation as a threat to the Second Amendment. More Republicans are expected to sign onto the filibuster threat as they return to Washington from a spring break.

And what if Reid, himself known to be a reluctant fan of any restriction that will anger gun-rights activists in his home state of Nevada, does get past the filibuster threat, and Democrats do eke out a Senate victory? The House of Representatives, you may recall, is run by the Republicans. Comprehensive background checks face almost certain death there.

As public policy, background checks, although far from a panacea, make good sense, as I’ve written before. A more thorough system would screen out thousands of people a year who should not have access to firearms.

Better screening would not have stopped the Newtown killer, though, who simply raided his mother’s gun safe before killing her and heading for Sandy Hook Elementary School. And most important in the politically radioactive confines of Washington, too many Republicans have as their highest priority denying Obama a victory on guns. That last imperative is likely to carry the day, whatever the grieving Newtown parents and national opinion polls have to say.

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