With leading Republicans all condemning President Obama’s new executive actions on guns, Democrats are gleefully pouncing on video of House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2013 saying that Congressional action to close the loophole in our background check system is “reasonable”and “obvious.”

Ryan’s statement yesterday about Obama’s executive actions described them as an effort to “trump the Second Amendment” and an affront to the nation’s founding values. So Democrats are responding by citing Ryan’s previous openness to closing the private seller loophole, a long time goal of Democrats and gun reformers.

To be clear, this doesn’t constitute any kind of flip flop on Ryan’s part. It is not contradictory to signal openness to a legislative fix to the background check system, and then to oppose executive action designed to partially ameliorate the same problem, as one of Obama’s actions is designed to do. (That action is merely a clarification of existing law, but even if it is modest, all this means is that Ryan’s statement about it is guilty of buffoonish and hyperbolic pandering, not inconsistency with his 2013 position.)


But still, Ryan’s 2013 statements about legislative action on background checks are worth checking out on their own terms, because they show a top Republican making a very sensible case to the effect that the legislative process can and even should be used to address gun violence.

Ryan made the comments in an interview with the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal editorial board in January 2013, soon after the Newtown shooting claimed the lives of 20 children. I’ll quote them at length, because they are so sensible and judicious (via Jennifer Bendery):

QUESTIONER: Are you okay with a gun show in Janesville selling guns to people —
RYAN: Without a background check? That’s an area I think we need to look into.
QUESTIONER: Are you okay?
RYAN: No, I think we should look into — someone who is not legally allowed to buy a gun, buying one — and let’s figure that out. I think we need to find out how to close these loopholes, and do it in such a way that we don’t infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights.
I don’t know the answer to how to make this work. That’s what committee hearings are about. You don’t react. You actually dig in and you figure it out….
Reasonable dialogue can occur and should occur, and let’s figure out how to do that. I think there are other areas where you don’t want to recycle the failed policies of the past, like an assault weapons ban. That, to me, didn’t stop gun violence….
QUESTIONER: Can you close a loophole that at least requires any weapons sold at a gun show — that person has to have a background check?
RYAN: Yeah, I think that’s a very reasonable problem. I think that’s obvious. And I think we should look into how to do that.

As it happens, I agree with Ryan on all of this. The “assault” weapons ban, which many Democrats are still pushing, is probably ill advised and unworkable. And indeed, in opposing the “assault” ban while voicing support for the idea of closing the background check loophole, Ryan is demonstrating that the latter idea is, or should be, a sensible sweet spot where bipartisan gun reform should be able to actually happen.


Under current law, federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks on gun sales. Private sellers are not. Hence, the “private seller loophole.” Democrats and gun reformers have long argued that this loophole is allowing guns to get into the hands of prohibited buyers — who would not be able to buy them from federally licensed dealers — and that the natural solution is to close this loophole.

Ryan seems to agree that this is a “reasonable” and “obvious” goal, and a legitimate policy question for Congress to address. What’s more, his suggestion that we should do this “in such a way that we don’t infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights” serves as tidy confirmation from a top Republican that it is presumably possible to close this loophole in a way that does not infringe on those rights.

Now, this is hardly an easy policy problem. This became very obvious during the debate over the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have closed the loophole, in the Senate in 2013. There were all kinds of legitimate questions — about what sort of exemptions should be drawn and how records of private gun sales should be kept — that were difficult to resolve. (The measure was ultimately filibustered by Republicans.)


But as Ryan himself points out, it turns out that the Congressional process is a very good place to hash out such difficulties and differences — and resolve them! “That’s what committee hearings are about,” Ryan says. “You actually dig in and you figure it out,” using “reasonable dialog.”

Good point! If only Ryan were in a position where he might help make something like this happen right now.

Of course, Ryan would likely argue that, even if most House Republicans wanted to close the background check loophole — which they almost certainly don’t — it would be an impossibility because they Can’t Trust Obama.