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Gun control: Why the fight over universal background checks is the key
The controversial proposal to ban assault weapons has gone nowhere, and now there's a new focus in the gun debate
"Any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks." — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
"Any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks." — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis
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fter scrapping a proposed assault-weapons ban, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared this week that the gun-law reform package headed for a vote in early April will include background checks on all gun buyers. Current law requires checks only on sales by licensed gun dealers. Other elements in Washington's collection of gun-related bills would step up school safety and tighten sanctions on the illegal transfer of firearms, among other things. Reid said he dropped bans on military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines because he didn't have enough votes to beat a filibuster by Republicans — and even some red-state Democrats. But he's drawing a line in the sand over the paperwork on gun buyers. "I want to be clear," Reid said. "In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks."

Gun-control advocates demanded a host of new measures to reduce gun violence after the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down by a single killer armed with an assault rifle. The ban on military-style weapons and ammo clips were the most headline-grabbing provisions in the bunch, and now that they appear doomed, "a background check requirement is, in the eyes of many, the most important provision left on the table," says Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. If Democrats can't win on this one, they'll come out of the 2013 gun debate defeated and demoralized.

The lack of traction the assault weapons ban has gotten has already been met with disappointment by some gun-control advocates. But imagine how much broader and deeper the discouragement will be if background checks aren't passed. The perception that the White House and congressional Democrats failed to pass meaningful reform would be a likely consequence. [Washington Post]

Universal background checks would amount to a significant expansion of the nation's gun laws. Gun-control advocates cite studies that suggest that 40 percent of gun sales are made by private sellers who don't have to check into buyers' personal history (although some analysts say that figure is high). And in that regard, liberals don't see universal background checks as just a token victory, says Rick Averill at American Thinker. It's their "Holy Grail," which they're hoping will not just close the so-called gun-show loophole but pave the way to "gun confiscation without firing a single shot."

The [universal background check] will require any citizen selling their gun to go through their local FFL [Federal Firearms Licensed] dealer. That means: you find someone who wants to purchase your firearm. Both of you go to a gun store and pay the gun store a processing fee to do the paperwork on the sale... and if everything turns out okay, the purchaser comes back 30 days later and picks up his gun. If everything does not turn out okay (e.g. if the purchaser has an unpaid parking ticket from 5 years ago) then the sale does NOT go through...

The worst part of UBC will be the check on the seller (that's you and me). In the interest of getting illegal guns off the street, the left will want to throw in this little addition to the universal background check scheme: the seller must prove that they legally own the gun they are seeking to sell... If you attempt to sell an old shotgun your father left you years ago, to your neighbor you have known for 10 years, both of you must go to the FFL dealer and fill out the paperwork. When it turns out you don't have a bill of sale for the shotgun IN YOUR NAME, you are now in possession of an illegal gun. The shotgun will be confiscated and the police will now have a reason to search your house for any other illegal weapons you might have in your possession. [American Thinker]

Advocates of the expanded background checks, however, say it would indisputably discourage gun violence. That might explain why the vast majority of the public — including most National Rifle Association members — support this measure, says Zack Beauchamp at Think Progress. "Universal background checks deter criminals from purchasing guns."

This isn’t really a contestable point. 80 percent of crime guns are purchased through "private" sales, which means from unlicensed dealers at gun shows or other people currently exempted from having to run background checks under federal law. Forcing all sellers to run background checks both deters criminals from buying guns (if they fail the check they can be prosecuted) and prevents a check on sellers that might be inclined to sell to shady characters if they didn't know they were committing a federal crime. [Think Progress]

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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