pparently, a group of senators is "quietly seeking a new path on gun control." Or at least, they were quietly doing so until The New York Times wrote about the once-covert effort. Now, of course, the efforts are less quiet.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is reportedly back talking to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) about how they might attract more support for a bill expanding the current background check system. The two senators, it seems, are focused on background checks and background checks alone, a move I think wise given the widespread view that such a measure is entirely appropriate.
Unfortunately, the Times also detailed a push being lead by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to revise or expand penalties for firearms trafficking offenses. Now, federal prosecutors really do not need more tools to prosecute individuals they catch trafficking in illegal weapons, but of course, no United States senator has ever gone hungry by being "tough on crime." And yet... the mere fact that Gillibrand is pushing for more gun regulations at the same time Toomey and Manchin are trying to revive background checks shows that Senate Democrats learned little from their last gun-control fiasco. Furthermore, Gillibrand's stated reason for pursuing the new law might well be the poster child for the sort of reasoning that keeps gun rights enthusiasts paranoid and the NRA fully funded.
Gillibrand's quote in the Times is simple, and its logic is straightforward. Asked why she we need stricter trafficking laws, the junior senator from New York explained that "I think trafficking can be the base of the bill, the rock on which everything else stands. I also think it's complementary to background checks because, let's be honest, criminals aren't going to buy a gun and go through a background check. So if you really want to go after criminals, you have to have to do both."
The most ardent gun rights advocates literally stay up at night worrying that each gun regulation they allow to pass could be the one that sets off the avalanche that turns this nation into some sort of gun-outlawing regulatory hell. This group of people is naturally suspicious of arguments for "commonsense" gun control, not so much because they really think that their gun rights would be in any sense compromised by the recently defeated revisions to the existing background check regime, but rather because they do not think that the advocates for the aforementioned regime will be content to stop once background checks are in place.
Many of these pro-gun individuals would be fine with background checks. But they fear, with some reason, that if they concede on background checks today, then the next time some madman gets a firearm and kills 30 people, the same proponents of background checks will be harnessing public outrage by turning the families of the victims into lobbyists for what they will undoubtedly label "commonsense" reform that decent American couldn't possibly oppose. For that reason, the position of many gun rights advocates is that they prefer to defend their right to "keep and bear arms" from the Rhine so they will never be forced to do so from the Rubicon.
Even crazy-sounding theories occasionally appear to have at least a tiny basis in reality. Indeed, from time to time, gun regulation proponents appear to push for stricter gun laws irrespective of whether or not particular proposals actually make anyone safer. The fact that President Obama allowed Sen. Dianne Feinstein to push him into calling for a renewal of the assault weapons ban — despite the fact that virtually every non-partisan group that has studied the AWB found that it had virtually no impact on violent crime rates — suggests that at least a few powerful people are more interested in restricting gun rights than they are in actually curbing violent crime. Indeed, the president dramatically weakened the chances of getting background checks approved by attaching it to a push for the AWB, thereby allowing groups like the NRA to, I think unfairly, imply that the president's motive for pushing reform was more anti-gun than anti-violence.
Which brings us back to Gillibrand and the renewed push for reform. Consider the New Yorker's stated logic for pursuing tighter gun trafficking laws: Criminals will not buy guns through a complete background check regime, so if we manage to pass that, we also need to pass a another criminal statute relating to the possession, movement, and distribution of firearms. Here's what every gun person wonders when they read Gillibrand's statement: "Wait, I thought the whole point of background checks is to keep guns away from criminals… Is she saying that if it works, then we need another law?"
I want background checks to pass, but I hold out little hope that they will. And if they have any chance at all, it will be as a standalone measure not packaged with any other proposals. Senate Democrats need to wake up and stop making the perfect the enemy of the good.
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