Gun Control: A Background-Check Truce May Not Matter

Sen. Pat Toomey (R) and Sen. Joe Manchin speak to the press about background checks for gun purchases, in the U.S. Capitol building April 10 Photograph by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The Senate is poised to vote on expanding background checks for firearm sales at gun shows and via the Internet. Let’s assume that the unlikely compromise announced today by two backbenchers—Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania—will allow the Obama administration to get past a filibuster threat and have an up-or-down vote.

Since Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, there would be a decent chance the background-check bill passes. Would that constitute a big victory for the White House? What happens next? And how much does any of this matter?

The short version: It’s a political win notable for its modest scale. Next, the debate shifts to the Republican-controlled House, where gun-control provisions ordinarily go to die. And it’s hard to say how much expanding background checks matters, because the crucial statistic undergirding the idea is so musty.

In an emotionally delivered but strikingly modest State of the Union promise, Obama said he would honor the victims of the horrific Newtown (Conn.) elementary school shooting by getting a vote on gun control. Four months later, he did that, overcoming a filibuster attempt by Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and other members of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went along with the misfired filibuster, looking hapless as he failed to forge a unified GOP position.

Don’t forget, however, that to get to the background-check vote, Obama had to allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of pro-gun Nevada, to abandon the president’s proposals to ban so-called assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Further dampening any background-check victory party Democrats may be tempted to organize is the harsh reality that House Speaker John Boehner has signaled little interest in cooperating with an Obama-backed bill. Watching developments on April 10, he told reporters: “We’ll wait and see what the Senate does.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia has said he opposes the background-check provision and doesn’t have plans to hold hearings on the proposal.

Under current law, sales by federally licensed gun dealers go through a computerized system that aims to screen out felons, fugitives, the mentally ill, and several other prohibited categories. The Senate measure would expand background checks to all “commercial” transfers. Sales among friends and family members wouldn’t be affected.

Background checks were not relevant to the Newtown massacre. The shooter’s mother acquired her weapons legally, passing muster with the computerized system. Her son, although presumably deranged, never had to undergo a check. He simply raided his mother’s gun safe before he killed her and moved on to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As I’ve noted before, the argument for background checks is grounded in the premise that, in President Obama’s words, “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.” With a loophole that large, the thinking goes, plenty of criminals and crazy people can go to weekend gun shows or websites and obtain weapons, no questions asked.

That’s baloney, according to pro-gun advocates. John Lott, a former chief economist at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, calls that 40 percent figure “a myth.” He estimates that the real figure “is closer to 10 percent.” Lott’s assessment matters because he is probably the National Rifle Association’s favorite social scientist. If the background-check idea gets any serious attention in the House, you can count on the NRA and its allies to trot out Lott’s skepticism.

Who’s right? It turns out that a single study, now approaching decrepitude, serves as the sole basis for the 40 percent stat. In May 1997, the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department, published the results of a survey conducted by two respected researchers who concluded that “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved FFLs [federally licensed dealers] and hence were subject to” background checks.

Lott criticizes the relatively small size of the survey, as well as what he sees as its various methodological and definitional weaknesses. His skepticism deserves attention, as does his tendency to find fault with any research he sees as questioning his view that broader ownership and carrying of firearms decreases crime rates.

Background-check proponents would be wise to concede that it’s long past time to see whether the 40 percent figure remains accurate. Even if the stat is lower, doing checks on all commercial sales seems like a reasonable preventive step that stops well short of threatening the viability of the Second Amendment. But good luck telling that to Republicans in the House hell bent on denying Obama any kind of bragging rights on a politically radioactive issue.

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