January 25, 2013

Don’t look now, but a Republican Senator is quietly working with Democrats on not one, but two major pillars of President Obama’s gun reform package. This not only represents the first hint of bipartisan cooperation on guns, but is revealing about the White House’s strategy going forward.

Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois is working with Senator Joe Manchin, a red state Democrat with a sterling “pro gun” record, on legislation that would achieve universal background checks (with narrow exceptions). At the same time, Kirk is also partnering with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on another gun proposal: Next week, they will jointly introduce a measure to facilitate cracking down on gun trafficking.

That proposal would impose much more serious penalties on so-called “straw purchasers” who currently get little more than a legal slap on the wrist for buying and reselling guns to those who fail background checks. Gun control advocates believe the loophole makes it far easier for criminals to get guns.

As I keep telling you, the relentless media focus on the assault weapons ban — which will likely have a tough time getting through Congress — is misguided. The universal background check is arguably more important than the assault ban. But there’s also this gun trafficking measure, which would also be a big step forward. The White House’s package of proposals also includes a call for Congress to close that “straw purchasing” loophole. White House aides, who are leaving the legislative details of the gun package to Congress, are happy to have Gillibrand moving this forward with bipartisan support.

Kirk’s support for these measures is significant in another way: It’s a reminder that there still exists a certain type of Republican that Dems hope will ultimately support universal background checks and the gun trafficking measure — both of which are far less controversial than the assault ban. Before you tell me there are no more moderate Republicans to support such things, consider this:

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report estimates that there are 16 House Republicans who represent districts won by Obama in 2012, and another 15-25 Republicans representing districts that are marginal, some of which are suburban districts, or combinations of suburbs and rural areas. These Republicans, Wasserman suggests, might be open to the less controversial Obama gun proposals. As for the Senate, Kirk’s quiet support suggests at least the possibility that a handful of moderate GOP Senators could end up supporting them.

And understand this: If Obama achieves something close to universal background checks, and also closes the gun trafficking loophole, he will have achieved a significant chunk of his gun reform agenda — even without the assault weapons ban. The debate isn’t being covered this way by the media, but it’s true nonetheless. So keep an eye on Kirk and these moderate and suburban Republicans.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.