Editorial: Broader background checks should be revived
It became increasingly clear in the four months since 20 children and six women were gunned down in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that any sweeping gun-control reforms faced a tough road in Congress.
Although there was a spike in public sentiment to do something in the wake of those killings, polls showed there was not overwhelming support to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. So it was no surprise that the U.S. Senate voted down those pieces of gun-control legislation last Thursday.
Less understandable was the Senate's rejection of a measure to expand the requirement for background checks of gun buyers to transactions that take place at gun shows and over the Internet. The proposal fashioned by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania came closer to passage than the other two provisions but still fell short.
Unlike other parts of the gun legislation, expanding the background check requirement had strong public backing -- 80 percent or more, according to polls. That's why its defeat was somewhat puzzling and left many wondering whether those who opposed it were listening to the public or the powerful pro-gun lobby.
The background check system was created under the 1993 Brady law and requires licensed gun dealers to submit a buyer's name before completing the sale. Convicted criminals and people who have been declared by a judge to be "mentally defective" are among those barred from buying a gun. Private gun owners and sellers at gun shows don't have to run the federal checks.
The bill co-authored by Manchin would have closed that gun show loophole, which represents a sizable portion of firearms sales. Contrary to what the National Rifle Association would have you believe -- the NRA "lied," Manchin said -- the requirement would not apply to private transactions among families and friends. The proposal also expressly prohibited the creation of a national gun owners registry, another specter raised by the proposal's opponents.
There were no doubt concerns about protecting Second Amendment rights, as there should be. But the background gun check system has been law for 20 years now, and if it was unconstitutional, the NRA no doubt would have successfully taken it to court by now.
Opponents of gun control have said, correctly, that background checks did not prevent any of the recent high-profile mass killings because information was not included to prevent the sale of weapons to those killers. But that's not a reason to block expansion of the checks; it's a case for strengthening the reporting requirements for submitting pertinent information to the system.
The man accused of killing Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum last month had bought several guns after he had been determined ineligible to own them, a prosecutor has said. However, the information that should have shown up in the federal gun check system was not reported by West Virginia until a state database began operating in January 2011. That case shows that there remains plenty to do to make the background check system stronger.
Along with that, though, expanding the system to include all commercial transactions only makes sense. A broader, more complete system is more likely to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them than what's in place now.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week kept open his options to bring up the legislation again, and let's hope he does. The large majority of the public that supports expanding background checks should let lawmakers know their views. Perhaps the public can finally convince Congress to do the sensible thing to better protect us all.
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