The Washington Post

It’s background checks or bust for gun-control advocates

When the book is written on the gun debate of 2013, one thing seems clear. The overall success or failure of gun-control advocates will largely rest on one question: Were they able to pass a measure to substantially expand background checks during gun purchases?

(Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday announced that the full Senate will soon begin considering a package of gun-related bills, including a proposal to expand background checks. (Under current law, gun sales that don't involve licensed dealers are exempt from checks.)

"I want to be clear: in order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks," Reid said in a statement.

That amounts a line in the sand in the gun debate. By demanding background checks, Reid is signaling how much Democrats are willing to fight for such a provision moving forward.

As the debate over new gun laws kicked off in Congress earlier this year, the staunchest advocates of new gun-control laws advocated a variety of measures. Among them: a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, expanding the background check requirement, and stricter gun trafficking laws.

But as time went on and the political realities of the gun debate came into focus, it became clear advocates weren't going to get everything they wanted. The assault weapons ban faced long odds from the get-go. The number of red state Democrats who couldn't support it and the extent to which it was being downplayed signaled its shaky standing weeks ago.

Reid excluded the proposed ban from the package (he said earlier this week there were fewer than 40 votes for it), but promised that it would come up during the amendment process.

In other words, it's not likely going to make the cut.

Which is all the more reason expanding background checks is so important for gun-control advocates, most of whom are Democrats. Aside from the assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines -- which Reid said would also come up in the amendment process -- a background check requirement is, in the eyes of many, the most important provision left on the table.

And that means the next few weeks will be crucial. At this point, a bipartisan group of senators negotiating the issue hasn't reached an agreement because of differences over gun sale records. A Democratic-sponsored alternative was passed in the Judiciary Committee as a placeholder.

Reid expressed hope Thursday for a breakthrough in the negotiations, and said he was open to substituting a bipartisan measure for the one that is currently included in the bill. It goes without saying that if no deal is reached and that doesn't happen, it will be tougher to win votes for the larger gun-control package.

For President Obama, who has been an outspoken supporter of new gun-control laws, the Senate is only half the battle. In the GOP-controlled House, legislation stands to face an even tougher time.

For that reason, the president could really use a bipartisan bill winning passage in the upper chamber. House Republicans are far less likely to support a Senate measure passed along party lines without GOP support. (Which also explains why the assault weapons ban, opposed by most Republicans, isn't likely to be part of the final Senate package.)

The lack of traction the assault weapons ban has gotten has already been met with disappointment by some gun-control advocates. But imagine how much broader and deeper the discouragement will be if background checks aren't passed. The perception that the White House and congressional Democrats failed to pass meaningful reform would be a likely consequence.

Democratic leaders have planted their flag firmly in the push for expanded background checks. The coming weeks will tell whether they can turn that goal into a reality.


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Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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