Facing the Real Gun Problem

The Gun Report

a blog by Joe Nocera at nocera.blogs.nytimes.com
Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
The National Rifle Association’s annual convention, Houston, April 2005


On April 17, 2013, as parents of children gunned down in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School looked on, the Senate rejected a bill to close loopholes in the federal law that requires background checks of gun purchasers. Background checks, most of which take only minutes to complete, are designed to bar sales to several categories of persons, such as felons, fugitives, drug addicts, people adjudicated as mentally incompetent, and perpetrators of domestic violence. Current law requires federally licensed gun dealers to conduct such checks, but does not apply to so-called private sales, many of which take place at gun shows and via the Internet. This loophole accounts for about 40 percent of gun sales, and therefore radically undermines the effectiveness of the background check regime.

Polls report that 85 percent of Americans, and 81 percent of gun owners, favor universal background checks. One might think that in a working democracy, 51 percent support would be sufficient. But not in this democracy, and not on this issue. The provision fell six votes short of the sixty needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

The measure that the Senate rejected was exceedingly modest. It was a watered-down compromise drafted by two senators with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association—Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. It included several provisions sought by gun rights advocates, including background check exemptions for private transactions between family and friends, and a prohibition on a national gun registry. The two other central features of President Barack Obama’s initial post–Sandy Hook gun control proposal had already been jettisoned—bans on sales of assault weapons and magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Yet even the modest compromise forged by two NRA-approved senators could not survive. Some have blamed President Obama for not twisting enough arms, but as Elizabeth Drew has incisively explained, that charge greatly overstates a president’s ability to change a senator’s vote.1 And even if the five Democrats who voted against the proposal had fallen in line, the bill would still have failed.

As a result, more than four months after Adam Lanza killed twenty first-graders, six adults, and himself with a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle in Newtown, Connecticut, the national politics of gun control remains where it was—at a stalemate. A handful of states, most notably Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and Maryland, have enacted strict new gun regulations. (Another handful, however, have loosened their gun laws since Newtown, though in less significant ways.) But Congress has done exactly nothing.

Meanwhile, gun violence in the United States continues to far outpace that in other developed nations. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in suicides, homicides, or accidents. By this grim metric, we are unquestionably a world…

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