Civil Liberties

Gun Background Check Measure Dying a Well-Deserved Death in the Senate


Sen. Frank Lautenberg
U.S. Government

The limp and pointless Senate measure to extend background checks to all sales made at gun shows and personal sales that originate with online listings appears to be losing steam. Democratic Senators from states where people actually care about their self-defense rights appear to be abandoning ship as they realize they're putting their political careers at risk in order to win nothing more than a political fig leaf for the president. And Republicans who might safely vote to gut the Second Amendment face enormous push-back from their pro-gun colleagues. Whatever is a senator to do, except abandon the worthless measure to its fate?

As Jacob Sullum has pointed out, licensed gun dealers always have to run background checks, so the "gun show exception" is actually a personal-transfer exception. Applying background checks to personal gun show sales might scoop up a few more transactions — or just drive people to arrange to meet where the rule doesn't apply. And actual online sales involving the shipping of a firearm already have to go through federally licensed dealers, who do background checks. The new measure would seem to require background checks for in-person sales that originate in online classified ads. Newspaper ads and flyers posted at a gun shop wouldn't be covered. What happens to people who advertise in multiple venues is anybody's guess.

Yeah, none of that makes any sense. And none of it would have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre, since Adam Lanza and his mom were both capable of passing any number of background checks, online, at a gun show, or stopped randomly on the street. That's a hell of a thing on which to make your political last stand. As the New York Times puts it:

In spite of a vote last Thursday in favor of debating new gun measures, some Democrats who are facing re-election next year in conservative states have already said they will not vote for the background check measure offered by Senators Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, forcing Democrats to look desperately across the aisle to fill the gaps.

Republicans, in the meantime, are bitterly torn between moderates who feel pressure to respond to polls showing a majority of Americans in support of some new gun regulations and conservatives who are deeply opposed to them. …

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, says he will vote against the measure, and at least three other Democrats are expected to join him in trying to defeat it, including Heidi Heitkamp, a freshman senator from North Dakota. Some left-leaning Democrats may also balk because of the gun-rights provisions that have been added to the bill to entice Republicans.

Among the 16 Republicans who joined 50 Democrats and two independents in voting last week to proceed to consideration of gun legislation, roughly seven have already decided not to support the measure. Another half-dozen Republicans who voted to proceed on the bill remain ambivalent.

The Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee, all of whom voted to proceed on the bill, are no votes right now, and several others are expected to also vote down the amendment on Tuesday, the expected day of the vote.

New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg is expected to support the measure — if he shows up. But he's three years older than the sun itself and has been largely absent from D.C. this year.

All of this is great political kabuki theater over a toothless gun bill. Real background check requirements would need to deeply regulate even personal transfers and would require some sort of registration system to be effective. They would also be unenforceable because they would attempt to reach into personal relationships — and would certainly land harmless people in prison in the attempt. It's hard to believe such an intrusive threat to personal liberty would pass, when the current Senate measure stumbles even before meeting an almost guaranteed doom in the House.

Meanwhile, Missouri, left to its own devices, is addressing school safety issues by allowing teachers to carry guns. So far, that seems to meet the approval of most parents. It's funny what states and localities can come up with in terms of locally acceptable solutions when left to their own devices.