Behind the histrionics, a consensus is forming on universal background checks

January 30, 2013

There was a great deal of noise and smoke at today’s Senate hearing on guns, but the real story is that despite all the histrionics about the assault weapons ban and the Second Amendment, a consensus is quietly forming on universal background checks. Via Steve Benen, USA Today has the goods:

A bipartisan coalition of senators is working on a proposal to strengthen and expand background checks for potential gun purchasers in an attempt to break the partisan gridlock holding up regulations on gun ownership.

Members of the group, which includes Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have declined to discuss specifics of the talks or of a potential bill.

Coburn spelled out what he wants in any bill. [...] “I believe the mentally ill should never be able to get a gun, I believe criminals should never be able to get a gun,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with updating what we’re doing to try to make that more effective.”

The nation must improve the system to encourage states to report the mentally ill and install protections for doctors to enable them to report patients who are “obviously psychotic” to prohibit them from buying guns, Coburn said.

So in addition to these two GOP Senators (Coburn and Kirk), we have Chuck Grassley and GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey, both of whom have expressed support for expanding the background check system. GOP Rep. Paul Ryan has also expressed support, which means it could very well get a vote in the House of Representatives. And what about other red and purple state Dems up for reelection in 2014, all of whom were supposed to run for their lives from any gun reform measure? Well, senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota both support background checks. And as noted above, Joe Manchin of West Virginia is working with this emerging bipartisan group reported on by USA Today.

Sure, it’s easy to be skeptical of all of this. It’s easy to imagine that these Senators are feigning support for expanding background checks in principle for now but will ultimately figure out a way not to support any specific proposals in the end. But judging by the public statements from many of these folks, they genuinely support the basic policy goal driving the push for expanded background checks — the basic principle that the vast majority of would be gun buyers should have their backgrounds screened to make sure they’re not criminals or mentally ill. What’s more, they are directly grappling with another basic policy problem here — the need for states to share data about the mentally ill with the feds, and for doctors to help identify those unfit to carry guns. Coburn discussed this above, and it is one of the Obama gun package’s main objectives.

Meanwhile, the conservative blogger Ed Morrissey tentatively came out for expanded background checks today, rightly acknowledging that they are moving forward, with this:

Bipartisan effort to expand background checks quietly gains steam

This is what’s really happening, even as reporters obsess over red state Dems balking at the assault weapons ban and even as the cameras dwell on the Second Amendment fulminating of GOP Senators and NRA officials. It’s too bad so many news orgs are missing this part of the story. It’s a good one.

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UPDATE: I forgot to include two more GOP Senators. There’s this one:

“I was a co-sponsor of a conceal carry bill in Nebraska that had a significant background check component,” said Senator Deb Fischer, a newly elected Republican from Nebraska.

And there’s also Senator Jeff Flake: “We all recognize the need for more effective background checks.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | January 30, 2013