Now that the assault weapons ban appears to be all but dead — which anyone who was paying even minimal attention knew was going to happen — the focus will now intensify on Obama’s proposal to expand background checks. This has always been the centerpiece of his plan — despite the best efforts of some observers to pretend otherwise — but now it will be treated as such, which means more scrutiny of the proposal itself and of its prospects.
In this context, John Boehner’s interview on the topic with Jake Tapper is important, because it highlights an argument you’re going to hear a lot in the days ahead.
First, the comic relief. As Steve Benen notes, Boehner slipped up and accidentally endorsed the policy goal at the heart of the proposal. Asked if background checks should be part of our response to ongoing killings, Boehner replied: “They should actually do a real background check on everyone.”
Obviously, under current law we don’t “do a real background check on everyone.” That’s the problem the new proposal would fix. But lest you think Boehner suddenly had an outbreak of common sense, his office quickly walked this back and said he supports only current law.
That’s pretty telling. But what is even more interesting is what came next:
“We’ve got plenty of laws on the books. Let’s go and enforce them before we just load up more laws on law-abiding citizens. Criminals don’t respect the law.”
The argument that we don’t need expanded background checks because “criminals don’t respect the law,” i.e., they won’t submit themselves to a background check, is a common one among the “gun rights” crowd. But this argument is self-refuting. It is actually an argument for expanding background checks, not against it. Here’s why: The loophole in the background check law — which the new proposal would close — is actually a leading reason why those who are prohibited from having guns are able to continue not “respecting the law.” The loophole in the law is a key reason they are able to get guns while not submitting themselves to background checks under the current system.
If the loophole were closed — and private sales were subjected to a background check, which law enforcement officials and other experts believe will severely limit the ability of criminals and/or traffickers to get guns — it would, in the view of those experts, become a lot harder for criminals not to “respect the law.” That is an outcome Boehner presumably wants. The fact that criminals don’t “respect the law” is why we need expanded background checks in the first place.
The broader point here is that there’s no coherent policy argument against expanding background checks. That’s why Boehner accidentally admitted that background checks are good policy. That’s why the argument that we should not tighten up the law because criminals don’t obey laws is self-undermining. And that’s why opponents continually resort to the false claim that expanding background checks will create a “national gun registry,” when the law explicitly prohibits that outcome.
Opposition to keeping records of sales — which are currently kept by gun sellers and would not create any national registry — is currently the excuse Senate Republicans are using to withhold support for this proposal, despite its extraordinarily broad public support. Does the inability to get Senate GOP support doom the proposal? It’s premature to say that. But more on this point later.
* What the sequester really looks like: Must watch: Buzzfeed has put together a terrific video compilation of local news segments from around the country detailing the harm the sequester is already doing to real people in local communities. This underscores the folly of the Beltway obsession with White House tours and demonstrates again that GOP triumphalism in the sequester battle is premature: It really may bring serious pressure to bear on local officials. This is a long game.
* The deeply divided GOP: Thomas Edsall has a deep dive into the real significance of that Republican National Committee autopsy report and what it says about the party’s deepening divisions between the pragmatic corporate/establishment wing of the party, which wants it to evolve on social issues, and the conservative wing of the party, which remains suspicious of the former’s motives and ideological commitments.
Edsall notes a crucial point about the party’s “makeover”: While officials seem to be contemplating genuine substantive change on social issues, they appear to be focused on merely rhetorical changes on economic issues. As I’ve noted here, as long as the party remains wedded to the Paul Ryan fiscal vision, real change will remain difficult.
* Will left hold Dems accountable for bad gun votes? Leaders of progressive groups are vowing that Democrats who vote against the assault weapons ban will face a backlash from the left, one that could depress the base in the 2014 elections, and could even face primary challenges. I don’t know how true this will prove, but this is another sign that guns are becoming a litmus test issue for the Democratic base, which is definitely a key dynamic worth watching.
* Looks like we’re stuck with crisis-to-crisis governing: The Senate has passed a measure that will continue funding the government beyond the March 27th shutdown deadline, and the House is expected to pass it today. So that’s one crisis averted. However, we’re looking at another debt ceiling showdown, continued sequestration, and then another battle this fall once the current “continuing resolution” funding the government runs out.
* Ground is shifting on gay marriage: Politico gets at an interesting dynamic that helps explain the massive shift in public opinion:
The middle ground on marriage is disappearing fast. As recently as 2008, both major-party presidential nominees had nearly the same public position on marriage: let there be civil unions, not gay marriage, and let each state set its own policy. That was a safe view for pro-gay Democrats and moderate Republicans alike. Today, that position is fully acceptable only to a diminishing slice of the electorate.
Another reason why vocal support for full equality is emerging as a requirement for any Democrat who hopes to be competitive in the 2016 Democratic primary.
* What’s progressive endgame in sequester fight? I’ve been asking whether progressives should prefer the sequester as a less bad alternative to a grand bargain that cuts entitlement benefits. But Kevin Drum games it out and concludes that there may not be any grand bargain at all, or at least that there won’t be any grand bargain that liberals could support under any circumstances. Which probably means we’re stuck with extended sequestration.
Also: Michael Grunwald on why Obama is probably stuck with the sequester.
* U.S. shifting drone program: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration, under fire from lawmakers, is shifting control over its drone program from the CIA to the military, which may produce at least some more transparency. The report adds this: “Even under military control, however, the campaign is likely to remain relatively secretive.” We need full transparency and Congressional oversight on the program and its legal rationale, and I hope Congressional Dems (and Republicans) will keep demanding both.
* And a primary worth watching: Take a look at Massachusetts Senate candidate Ed Markey’s new ad touting his efforts to hold BP accountable for the gulf spill. It helps explain why Rep. Markey, who’s positioning himself against opponent Stephen Lynch as a fighting progressive willing to go to war with polluters and corporations, is drawing attention and money from liberals nationally. This one comes after another ad in which he vows to continue standing up to the NRA. In a nice touch, Markey is touting his “F” rating from the NRA as a badge of honor.