On gun control, Saturday Night Live hit the bullseye. SNL opened its April 13 episode with a spoof of President Obama announcing his gun control victory in Congress: “They’ve agreed to think about talking about gun control. Amazing!”
That captures how Republican foes of stricter gun rules, egged on by the National Rifle Association, have shaped the debate: Democrats are thrilled that they’ll have an opportunity to discuss the issue. Indeed, this is how Obama framed it in the emotional crescendo of his mid-February State of the Union address. “They deserve a vote,” he bellowed, referring to victims of gun violence. Not that they deserve passage of restrictions on assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, and so on. They deserve a vote.
Senate Democrats unilaterally jettisoned the assault-weapon and ammo-capacity provisions the White House half-heartedly proposed in January. The vote coming this week focuses mostly on expanding background checks to cover sales not just by licensed dealers but also by unlicensed sellers operating at gun shows and via the Internet.
As I’ve argued many times, expanded background checks make sense and deserve enactment. Even the NRA once backed comprehensive background checks. As the gun-rights debate in Washington has shifted to the libertarian, anti-regulation pole, however, screening commercial gun sales for criminals, fugitives, and the insane has become a controversial idea, opposed by the NRA and many conservatives as a prelude to national registries and confiscation.
For perspective, recall that 20 years ago, Congress was busy debating—and approving—the precursor to the existing background-check system and curbs on military-style semiautomatic rifles (assault weapons, in the political argot), and a 10-round limit on ammo capacity. The latter two provisions expired in 2004 and now seem like relics of an ancient time.
Liberals should not count their background checks before they hatch, either. Yes, Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) have offered a compromise proposal. But Democrats from pro-gun states, such as Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, are almost certain to oppose the White House-backed bill when it comes time to a vote on Wednesday or Thursday.
Some Republicans who wouldn’t go along with a filibuster last week, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are going to cast no votes on the merits this week. And the NRA and its friends have been loading up the Manchin-Toomey compromise with arcane pro-gun-rights fine print that in the end may make it difficult for some liberal Democrats to go along.
In sum, take a very close look at what emerges from the Senate before declaring any great liberal triumph for gun control. And then ponder the fate awaiting the bill when it moves over to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.