For the first time since 1996, the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved and sent two gun reform bills to the full House. One of them—H.R. 8—would impose background checks on every sale or other transfer of a firearm, whether by a licensed dealer or a private party, with narrow exemptions. The other—H.R. 1112—would increase from three days to 10 the mandated waiting time for a federal background check to clear before a purchase can be transacted.
The committee vote came just a day before the one-year anniversary of the slaughter by a lone gunman of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Currently, federal background checks only cover sales by licensed dealers, not between private parties. Eleven states—including California, New York, Colorado, and Vermont—as well as the District of Columbia, have their own laws requiring universal background checks.
The committee vote on H.R. 8—23-15 along party lines—puts the bill introduced last month by Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California in line for a House vote by the end of this month. It’s sure to pass, given that it has 231 co-sponsors, including five Republicans.
In the Senate, however, where Republicans still hold the majority, the bill is DOA. In 2013, the last time a bill mandating universal background checks was introduced, in the wake of the slaughter of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Democrats were in charge, and the proposal was rejected in a 54-46 vote that required 60 to pass. The four Democrats who voted against the bill have since all been replaced by Republicans.
The committee vote Wednesday followed powerful testimony from survivors of shootings and family members of victims, as well as objections from Republicans who claimed the bill would turn “law-abiding citizens” into outlaws and violate the founders’ rationale for including the Second Amendment in the Constitution. They also objected to having to pay a dealer’s fee for a background check, something that costs $125 in D.C. Republican Rep. Louis Gohmert, displaying another edition of his usual nonsense, asserted the fee would be an unconstitutional “poll tax” on the Second Amendment. Democrats weren’t having any of it:
“This is common sense legislation to protect the public,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) said of the bill to extend the requirement for background checks to all gun sales, even private transactions between individuals, whether in person, or over the internet.
“For far too long, Congress has offered moments of silence instead of action in the wake of gun tragedies,” Johnson added after the committee’s vote. “That era is over.” […]
“The NRA is getting their money’s worth today,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), as Democrats said Republicans were simply filibustering to slow work on the background checks issue.
A few critics who favor gun reform have complained that it makes no sense to spend time trying to pass legislation now that everyone knows won’t clear the Senate. But that argument ignores the importance of Democrats showing voters what they will do if they gain the Senate majority and the White House in the 2020 elections. Passing such legislation now arguably improves their chances of gaining those majorities. Universal background checks are one gun reform that huge majorities of Americans—including majorities of gun owners—support wholeheartedly, no matter what is declared by the propagandists from the National Rifle Association and more extreme groups like Gun Owners of America.
What Democrats will have to come to grips with, however, is that, by themselves, universal background checks and extending the time allowed for law enforcement to do the checking will not achieve all that is needed to reduce gun violence. For one thing, the background check system is poorly funded and grossly understaffed. The extension to 10 days for a check to be completed will help to improve the situation somewhat, but getting more money to run the program will face the usual Republican objections to any increase in spending for anything that doesn’t directly help their friends and campaign donors.
And that’s not all, as German Lopez at Vox points out:
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that comprehensive background checks are a “logical first step,” especially given the high levels of public support for the policy change. But the effects of such a policy, at least at the state level, have been discouraging; when states enact comprehensive background checks alone, Webster explained, “we’ve not seen reductions in homicides and suicides follow.”
The argument that Webster and other researchers are now putting forward is not that background checks don’t work at all. But the way these policies have traditionally been implemented aren’t working as well as supporters would hope. And even if background checks can act as a foundation for other changes, the evidence increasingly suggests that other policies — such as a system that requires a license to buy a gun — may be necessary to really tackle America’s gun violence problem.
Short of the mass confiscation of firearms that the NRA has since the mid-1980s been shrieking is just around the corner, the most effective gun reform is also one deeply hated not only by right-wingers, but also by many Americans who are moderates on gun reform: licensing. Mandating a permit-to-buy system is one straightforward method of doing that:
In Connecticut, researchers looked at what happened after the state passed a permit-to-purchase law for handguns — finding a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and 15 percent reduction in handgun suicides. In Missouri, researchers looked at the aftermath of the state repealing its handgun permit-to-purchase law — finding a 23 percent increase in firearm homicides but no significant increase in non-firearm homicides, as well as 16 percent higher handgun suicides.
Another NRA anathema, registering all the firearms the way fully automatic guns are now registered, could also make a difference in reducing the chances of guns winding up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. But that, of course, allows the NRA to raise the possibility of gun confiscation. The now-weakened NRA has been able to raise a lot of money in the past by decrying this.
It’s no news to anyone that we’re a long, long way from licensing people before they can buy a firearm, or putting all firearms on a national register—if we ever do. Even huge Democratic margins in both houses of Congress and a Democratic president would be hard-pressed to bring about such changes.
For now, Democrats can only send a strong message on gun reform. They’ve wisely chosen as their first push a change that most Americans support. Going further will require not just a change in who sits in the Senate and the Oval Office, but a lot of energy focused on persuading American voters that additional gun reforms are good for the nation.