February 7, 2013

Here’s something worth noting about the ongoing gun debate: We’ve heard very, very, very little public comment from Senators — Republicans or Democrats — who are deeply involved in negotiations on a proposal to expand background checks. That bodes well, because when people involved in such talks are publicly quiet about what’s happening, it can be a sign that something is actually getting done.

In case you missed this the first time around, a bipartisan group of Senators — Republicans Mark Kirk and Tom Coburn, and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin — are in talks about background checks. Coburn recently told USA Today: “I believe the mentally ill should never be able to get a gun, I believe criminals should never be able to get a gun. There’s nothing wrong with updating what we’re doing to try to make that more effective.”

Coburn also told the paper that we must do a better job of encouraging states to report the mentally ill to the national database and make it easier for doctors to report patients who are “psychotic” and don’t have any business owning a gun.

All of that is good, but the crux of the issue remains: Will we see a compromise that expands the background check system into something approach a universal background check? It’s not politically hard to merely support better data-sharing by states or better reporting on the mentally ill within the current background check framework. Even Eric Cantor supports this. The key question is whether the compromise will close the private seller loophole. Even if the proposal does this with some exceptions, that’s a major step forward toward something approaching universal background checks.

A Senate staffer tells me that the group of Senators are genuinely focused on finding a way to close the private seller loophole — with exceptions — in addition to improving the national background check database. If this bears out, it’s very good news.

After all, if a bipartisan group of senators offers such a proposal, it has at least a chance of passing. A new Quinnipac poll out today finds that 92 percent of Americans support a background check on “all” gun sales. Some 89 percent of Republicans and 91 percent from gun households support this. Perhaps a handful of Senate Republicans will back something that has nothing short of universal public support (stranger things have happened). Will House Republicans allow it to come to a vote? There’s precedent for this happening. In the late 1990s, in the wake of the Columbine shooting, the GOP-controlled Senate and House both allowed votes on closing the private seller loophole. It failed in the House, but guess what: 35 House Republicans voted for it.

I’m told there’s no deal yet on background checks among the Senators, but if they are really focused on a genuine expansion of the background check system, that’s encouraging. Hopefully, the public silence about the talks bodes well, too — it could mean things are actually getting done and no one wants to scuttle whatever progress is being made. Of course, I could be wrong and the whole thing will crash and burn. We’ll see.

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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