For gun bill, unusual partners
Democrats and the NRA negotiate legislation to close loopholes exposed by the Virginia Tech tragedy.
The deal to tighten up the nation's gun laws for the first time since 1994 is a proof that when the interests of a powerful lobby coincide with an equally powerful politician, Washington can do business.Skip to next paragraph
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The bill, brokered between Democratic leaders led by Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and the National Rifle Association, would close some gaping loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). It would also provide $250 million in financial incentives to help states computerize criminal and mental-health records, and it outlines penalties for failing to do so.
Similar bills have languished in Congress over the past three sessions. But after the April massacre at Virginia Tech, in which a student who had been adjudicated as mentally ill killed 32 people, the issue gained new salience – particularly for Representative Dingell. One of Congress's most powerful Democrats, and a former NRA board member, he made improving the NICS system a top priority.
The NRA, which has been repositioning itself since Democrats took control of Congress, needed to show that it is reasonable and wants the current laws to work properly, say political analysts. It also hopes to stave off broader-based gun control.
Yet some critics say the compromise legislation doesn't go far enough because it does nothing to address the so-called "private gun-sale loophole." An estimated 40 to 50 percent of gun sales in the country are made at gun shows and by private individuals who are not required to perform background checks. Others are opposed because the legislation would create an appeals process that would make it easier for prohibited buyers to get their names removed from the NICS database.
Still others are opposed because they contend the appeals process is too cumbersome.
But advocates of the compromise say that improving the current system is better than doing nothing, especially if it appears to have a chance of passage.
"Anytime a congressman as powerful as Dingell and a lobby as powerful as the NRA can reach agreement, it has a pretty good chance of going through," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "They're quite a team."
NICS was created as a result of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. It required federally licensed gun dealers to check gun buyers' backgrounds to ensure they didn't have any criminal convictions or mental-health adjudications that would prohibit them from purchasing a firearm.
NICS become fully operational and permanent in 1998. But it soon became apparent the system had plenty of problems. The first, according to critics, is that it applied only to federally licensed gun dealers, who account for an estimated half of all guns sales in the United States.