Column: The Senate Vote Won’t End the Gun Debate
The way to stay sane in this city is never to expect too much.
So the soothing mantras of the capital involve admonitions about the art of the possible, the perfect and the good, the zen of baby steps.
Incremental, incremental, incremental.
Still, it is hard to remain calm in the face of the Senate’s failure — its failure as the parents of children murdered in Newtown looked on from the gallery — to pass the most modest of measures to curb gun violence.
We tend to speak easily here of how Washington is broken and gridlocked. But those of us whose day jobs sit at the intersection of politics and public policy don’t completely buy it. We retain ragged shreds of faith that Washington, despite its maddening imperfections, remains capable of rising to at least some occasions.
Except on Wednesday, it didn’t, as the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 required to expand background checks for gun buyers. It is an indication of the perennially warped politics of guns that politicians can more safely support same-sex marriage than background checks. Indeed, what passed Congress in 1994 — an assault weapons ban and strict limits on magazine sizes — is now unthinkable.
The background-check measure proposed by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is — I’ll refrain from the past tense, because Wednesday’s loss was not the final chapter — so sensible, so pared down, that the stronger argument against it is that it failed to go far enough, not that it ran roughshod over the Second Amendment.
To review: under current law, individuals who want to buy guns from licensed dealers must pass background checks. Manchin-Toomey would expand that requirement to in-state gun sales over the Internet (interstate sales are already covered, because the guns can only be sent to licensed dealers for transfer to the buyer), to gun shows and to other commercial transactions.
It would not apply to sales or transfers between family members and friends — notwithstanding the National Rifle Association’s claim that it would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.” As Manchin said on the Senate floor, “that is simply a lie. ... You can loan your hunting rifle to your buddy without any new restrictions ... you can give or sell a gun to your brother or your sister, your cousin, your uncle, your co-worker without a background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your workplace or on your church bulletin board without a background check.”
Another criticism of the measure — that it “would put us inexorably on the path to a national gun registry,” as Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz put it — is even less moored in reality. A national registry is banned under existing law; Manchin-Toomey would layer on a 15-year felony sentence for anyone who tries to implement one.
That leaves an array of other arguments against the measure that fail the simplest tests of logic.
Felons and others ineligible to buy weapons aren’t being prosecuted under the current system. Also, the existing system fails to list numerous individuals already prohibited from having guns.
OK, prosecute the ineligible would-be guys and fix the list.
Expanded background checks wouldn’t have prevented the Newtown shootings.
OK, but expanded checks might prevent another killer. No single change is going to prevent every episode of gun violence.
Expanded checks would impose a burden on law-abiding citizens without preventing criminals from obtaining guns.
Under the existing system, more than 2 million people have been barred from buying guns. Did some of them go on to obtain weapons illegally? Of course. But others were deterred — and in any event the expanded checks would narrow the currently huge loophole that lets felons buy guns without background checks. That some criminals will always break some laws is not an argument against having those laws in the first place.
The depressing aspect of last Wednesday’s vote is that the change was so small and the senators so seemingly impervious to logic.
The vote will not end the gun debate. After nearly two decades in which Democrats barely dared whisper about gun violence, the notion of new restrictions has become safe again — to broach, if not to enact. In the aftermath of Newtown, this time was different.
It just wasn’t different enough.