The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gun experts grade the Manchin-Toomey bill: ‘A step forward, but a small step.’

In a survey from 2004, prisoners who had been locked up for gun crimes explained how they had acquired their firearms in the first place. Some 39.5 percent said "family or friends." Another 37.5 percent answered, "the street or black market suppliers."

Since these were all private transfers, none of the buyers had to go through a federal background check. In theory, experts say, closing this loophole could go a long way toward curbing gun violence in the United States.

And yet a new bipartisan proposal in the Senate for expanding background checks would leave the majority of those above sales and transfers untouched.

The new compromise proposal (pdf), put forward by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) would require background checks for anyone who buys a firearm at a gun show or on the Internet. That would make it marginally harder for people who are prohibited from owning guns to acquire them. But it would still leave the vast majority of private transfers untouched — including many of the most common ways for criminals to get guns.

"[The proposed bill] would not require background checks for most of those transactions." notes Philip Cook, a criminologist at Duke University. "So it is a step forward, but a small step."

Some academics who have studied gun violence have argued that universal background checks can be an effective means of reducing crime. The checks make it much harder for high-risk groups — from felons to domestic-violence perpetrators to the severely mentally ill — from buying or acquiring firearms in the first place.

Two recent studies by Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick of Johns Hopkins have found that states with some form of universal background check, such as California and Maryland, had fewer guns diverted into the black market. Those local laws could only do so much, however, because they were undermined by neighboring states — the researchers found that guns from states with loose gun-control laws would trickle into states with stricter laws.

I asked Webster for his assessment of the Manchin-Toomey proposal. He pointed out that it bore a close resemblance to an earlier law in Colorado that had only required background checks at gun shows. In preliminary research, Webster said he hasn't found any clear effect on crime or illegal transfers from Colorado's policy. (Colorado has since strengthened its law and, starting in July, will require background checks for all person-to-person sales.)

There are other aspects of the broader gun-control package being considered in Congress that could potentially help tamp down on illegal gun transfers, say experts. A separate measure, for instance, would set clearer guidelines for prosecuting gun trafficking and "straw purchases."

How would this work? Say a person with a clean record goes into a federally licensed firearms dealer, passes a background check, and buys a gun. He then gives or sells the gun to a friend with a criminal record. That's a straw purchase. At the moment, it's a difficult crime to go after. Prosecutors have to prove that the original buyer was willfully lying about his intentions when filling out the paperwork — a case, they say, that's often difficult to make without a confession.

A new bipartisan proposal (pdf) in the House and Senate would make it a federal crime to buy a gun and then give it to someone whom the buyer has "reasonable cause" to believe is prohibited from owning one. The new proposal would increase the penalties, with a maximum of 20 years in prison. Those stiffer sentences, say former law enforcement officials, could end up increasing the number of prosecutions.

The Manchin-Toomey proposal would also, critically, encourage states to put their lists of prohibited purchasers into a national database more quickly. If done properly, that could fill in many of the holes in the existing background-check system. (The gunman in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, had been deemed mentally ill by a judge — but that record had never been sent to the FBI, so he was able to pass a background check.)

In their proposal, Manchin and Toomey go out of their way to reassure gun owners that the federal government will not create a national gun registry with its background-check records. "Our bill explicitly bans the federal government from creating a registry and creates a new penalty for misusing records to create a registry—a felony punishable by 15 years in prison."

They also point out that they will not require background checks for transfers between family and friends. "You can give or sell a gun to your brother, your neighbor, your coworker without a background check," they write. "You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your church or your job without a background check."

But these restraints, say Webster, could also limit the effectiveness of the bill in reducing gun crime. "Limiting background checks will impede our ability to keep guns from criminals," he says.

The Senate is expected to begin debate on broader gun-control legislation Thursday.

Further reading:

--Ed O'Keefe and David A. Fahrenthold have a nice mini-profile of Manchin, who went from a guy who shoots legislation in campaign ads to a leader of Senate gun-control efforts.

--Here's a more detailed explanation of how universal background checks would work in theory.

--The New York Times has a smart piece today on some of the loopholes in the existing background-check system.