The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A big, big step forward on gun control

Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin just held a press conference at which they unveiled their compromise on expanded background check proposals. Until now, I didn’t grasp how politically effective it would be to have two “gun rights” Senators — one a Republican, and one a red state Democrat, both with “A” ratings from the NRA — jointly calling for real action on guns, and describing it as a moral imperative on behalf of our children.

Yes, there’s a long, long way to go. But having seen this presser, there is now cause for cautious optimism that something like this emerging compromise could actually become law.

Notably, both of these Senators with strong NRA ties forcefully rebutted the argument that expanding background checks is an infringement on Second Amendment rights. This was good to see from Senators who represent states — Pennsylvania and West Virginia — with strong gun cultures. And they repeatedly hit the messaging sweet spot on expanding background checks, again and again describing the idea as a “common sense” response to gun violence, and that not doing anything at all is morally unacceptable.

“The events in Newtown changed us all,” Manchin said. “Nobody here in good conscience could sit by and not try to prevent a day that has happened in Newtown from ever happening again.”

“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” Toomey said. “I think it’s just common sense.” Toomey added that current national law, and the one that exists in Pennsylvania “have done nothing to restrain the lawful ownership of guns by law-abiding citizens.”

“Common ground rests on a simple premise,” Toomey continued. “And that is that criminals and the mentally ill shouldn’t have guns. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that premise.”

As for the specifics of the proposal, the Senators confirmed that background checks would be expanded to all private sales conducted through commercial portals on the internet and at gun shows. Checks would be undertaken by Federal Firearms Licensees, and records of sales would be kept by the dealers, as under current law. Manchin confirmed that all person-to-person transfers not done through a commercial portal are exempt: “Personal transfers are not touched whatsoever,” he said. In theory, this should satisfy those who worry about the proposal infringing on transfers between friends and family members.

Indeed, in a striking moment, Toomey confirmed that he believes a number of House Republicans will be able to support the emerging compromise. “I know there are a substantial number of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach,” Toomey said. “There are definitely Republicans in the House who support this.”

Chuck Schumer was shrewd to let Toomey and Manchin take a lead public role in moving this compromise forward. And both those Senators deserve credit for showing real leadership. This alliance has the potential to bring about a real shift in this debate.


UPDATE: The Times editorial board did a good job explaining why this compromise proposal has the potential to have a real impact, despite the exemptions in it:

Though it closes the biggest loopholes, the bill would not require checks for unadvertised gun transfers between individuals, like from one family member to another. This removes the important principle that every gun sale should require a background check, but the number of such sales is small enough that the bill would still be effective.

UPDATE II: Another Senator who also deserves real credit for leadership here is GOP Senator Mark Kirk. Yes, he has an “F” rating from the NRA, so this is easier for him, but he’s played a key role in keeping things moving forward on both expanded background checks and anti-trafficking legislation.