Gun-control activists, resolute, cite merits of background checks

The 20-year-old Brady law, requiring licensed gun dealers to run background checks of buyers, has blocked 2 million sales – half by felons, a report shows. Activists again urge extending checks to all gun sales, but Congress shows no inclination to revisit the issue.

Alan Rogers/Casper Star-Tribune/AP
Rifles are lined up for sale Feb. 19, 2014 at The Sports Lure in Buffalo, Wyo.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. And again. And again. That appears to be the mantra of proponents of federal gun control legislation, who arrived on Capitol Hill Friday with new ammunition for their fight.

Though they were turned back last year on the issue of universal background checks, and neither the House nor the Senate has plans to revisit that issue, gun-control advocates came to Capitol Hill bearing ... statistics. Assessing 20 years of the "Brady law," which requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks on all potential buyers, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported that at least 2 million purchases have been blocked – more than 1 million of them involving felons. Others thwarted were domestic abusers and fugitives, Brady officials say.

Supporters hope that the data, gathered from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, can help reignite interest on the Hill and in the states to extend background checks to private sales, meaning transactions that occur online and at gun shows. Private sales account for between 14 and 22 percent of the market. [Editor's note: The last sentence was changed to cite a smaller number, upon closer evaluation of a study about the prevalence of such sales.]

“It took six years and seven votes to pass the Brady bill, but we stayed the course until we passed the legislation,” said Sarah Brady, wife of Jim Brady, who was shot and gravely injured during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. “We are not going away and we’ll continue the fight until we finish the job and expand background checks to all gun sales.”

This year, advocates might be advised to look to the states, rather than to Washington, for action on this front. Last year, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Colorado – led by Democratic governors – approved background checks that cover all gun sales. This year, eight states are considering similar laws.

Opponents, however, are also revved up. A recall campaign in Colorado last year ousted two state senators who had supported the broadened background check legislation. Indiana, Kansas, and North Carolina – along with about two dozen other states – passed a series of laws last year that boost the rights of gun owners, including letting people carry guns in churches, elementary schools, at casinos, and on college campuses; broadening self-defense laws; and making records of conceal-carry permits confidential.

Several other states, among them Alabama, Texas, Utah, and South Carolina, last year chose to fight gun violence by strengthening possession restrictions on domestic abusers or people with mental illness. This fall, voters in Washington State will face dueling ballot measures – one for a universal background check and one barring background checks unless there is a uniform national standard.

Gun-control supporters appear to be making a subtle tactical shift since the 2013 bill to require universal background checks was defeated in the Senate by six votes. Instead of talking about bans on assault weapons and large-ammunition clips and background checks, they’re focusing their message on background checks, The New Republic reports. As Jim Kessler, senior vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, told the publication: “The reality is, you try and do two things, you get none of them done.” 

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