Gun background checks: How would Senate proposal work, exactly?

The Senate gun proposal extends background checks to purchases made at gun shows or online, but it doesn't affect sales to 'friends' or 'neighbors,' and it 'bans' creation of a national registry of gun owners.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania (r.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia finish a news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, announcing that they have reached a compromise on background checks for gun buyers.

How would the new Senate proposal on expanding gun background checks work, exactly?

That question arises in the wake of Wednesday’s announcement by Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania that they’ve reached agreement on a bipartisan effort to include guns shows and online firearms sales in the federal background check system.

Some liberals are hailing the move as a big step forward on gun control. Both Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey come from states with gun cultures and have high ratings from the National Rifle Association, points out Washington Post left-leaning blogger Greg Sargent.

“There is now cause for cautious optimism that something like this emerging compromise could actually become law,” writes Mr. Sargent.

Meanwhile, some conservatives are not as happy. The NRA, for its part, has officially opposed the measure.

“Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” says an NRA statement issued after the two senators rolled out their bill.

Is the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act sweeping enough to merit such emotions? Let’s run through its provisions so you can decide for yourself.

The first title of the bill deals with ways to get more names of prohibited purchasers into the existing background check system.

According to a summary posted by Toomey’s office, the act would “encourage” states to provide all their available records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). It would do this by withholding some federal funds from states that drag their heels in this area.

Gun dealers would also be allowed to use the NICS to run background checks on their own employees, though they would not be required to do so. The act would also “clarify” that current privacy laws don’t prohibit the submission of mental-health records into the NICS.

Apropos of this, conservatives often complain that the federal government should try to enforce existing background-check laws before undertaking an expansion of gun control efforts. They say the feds undertake very few prosecutions of those who illegally try to buy firearms. Proponents of broader background checks say that prosecutions aren’t the right metric – the mere existence of the system scares off many potential illegal purchases, they say.

The second title of the bill is its heart. It would expand the current background check system to include all sales at gun shows, including those made from nonfederally licensed dealers. Sales between private individuals on or near the show premises would also become subject to checks.

“Our bill ensures that anyone buying a gun at a gun show has to undergo a background check by a licensed dealer,” says Manchin’s online summary of the legislation.

Checks for online sales are expanded, as well.

Right now, if you buy a firearm online from a seller in another state, you have to go to a licensed dealer and get a background check before you can pick up the gun in question. But if you buy online from someone within your own state, no such check is required. The gun can be sold without the buyer and seller ever meeting in person.

The Toomey-Manchin effort would close the in-state loophole.

“All purchases buying guns online must undergo a background check by a licensed dealer,” holds Manchin’s summary of the legislation.

As for keeping records of firearm sales, nothing will change, according to Manchin and Toomey. Gun dealers will keep records of transactions in bound books, as they do now.

Bill wording “bans” the federal government from creating a registry of gun owners, and it makes the misuse of gun records to make a registry a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Both Toomey and Manchin have noted that their effort does not prevent family members, friends, and neighbors from buying and selling firearms from one another. The bottom line is that the bill really makes no change in existing law as it applies to gun sales by individuals that don’t take place at gun shows or online. Those can occur without background checks. Even a federal regulator might find it daunting to define “friend” and “neighbor” for the purposes of this bill, after all.

The third and last title of the bill would establish a commission to study the causes of mass violence in the United States. Said commission would be empowered to look at everything from guns and mental-health care to depictions of violence in the media and violent video games.

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