The narrow defeat of a U.S. Senate proposal to implement universal background checks on gun purchases is disappointing on more than one level.
First, the bill's defeat all but renders the gun-purchase regulations of certain individual states null and void. If buyers disinclined to submit to background checks can simply purchase guns online, at gun shows or in neighboring states with more lax restrictions, background-check laws become essentially meaningless. Familiar with the cry, "Enforce the laws we already have"? When only licensed firearms dealers are required by federal law to conduct background checks, states like California don't have all that much of a law to enforce.
Equally troubling is the notion that powerful lobbies, rather than ordinary citizens, exert decisive control over the legislative process -- control that is disproportionate to the will of the people they are sworn to represent.
Following the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the public seemed ready to finally embrace some tightening of certain gun restrictions. More than 8 in 10 Americans supported requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in January. A more general AP-GfK poll showed that 58 percent of Americans supported stricter gun laws, including broader background checks. But as the Senate vote neared, the NRA, easily among the most influential lobbies in the U.S., rallied supporters and ratcheted up pressure on legislators. It was effective. In the days before Wednesday's Senate vote, a new AP-GfK poll showed public support for tighter restrictions had slipped to 49 percent (still substantially ahead of the 38 percent who said the laws should stay the same).
Were these eight Senate proposals simply too much all at once? Perhaps. They all failed, including, most decisively, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's measure to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and semi-automatic rifles considered to be "assault rifles." A case can be made that Feinstein's proposed ban pulled the whole effort under. How else can we explain the failure of a measure that would have strengthened laws against gun trafficking?
Future efforts to achieve common-sense restrictions should take an incremental approach, starting with a measure that most already agree on: Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. That, of course, is essentially the point of universal background checks. But put to a vote on a stand-alone basis, it might have a better chance. After all, last week's attempt, proposed by a Democrat and two Republicans, was endorsed by a majority of the chamber. But the amendment required 60 of the Senate's 100 votes and received just 54.
Of course state and federal governments can also do a better job enforcing our existing laws. Not all states provide data, as required, to the FBI's background-check system, which can block prohibited sales to potential buyers with a court-declared or doctor-diagnosed mental illness. A 2012 study found that many states don't contribute information on the mentally ill to the database because of health privacy laws. Efforts are now underway to legally bypass those restrictions for purposes of gun-purchase background checks.
Keeping guns out of the hands of those who are not equipped or qualified to have them still makes sense, no matter what the Senate might have decided last week.