Assault weapons ban shelved. Background checks next?

Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he wants to bring a gun bill to the floor that will pass. That means no assault weapons ban and, possibly, no universal background checks, either.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, seen here on Capitol Hill earlier this month, said on Tuesday that fewer than 40 of his chamber's 100 members support a White House-backed bill to renew a ban against military-style assault weapons.

Gun control legislation that the Senate will consider next month may be turn out to be much less sweeping than proponents originally envisioned.

It won’t contain a ban on assault weapons, for one thing. Majority leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that such a prohibition could be offered on the floor as an amendment, but that it doesn’t have enough support to be included from the start in the main bill.

It’s also possible the firearms bill won’t contain an expansion of background checks to cover private sales. Asked if background checks would make the cut,  Senator Reid said he was working toward legislation that could win 60 votes and then noted that “there are a couple different background check proposals floating around."

In other words, he was noncommittal.

“I want something that will succeed. I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there,” Reid said.

For the Obama administration, loss of background checks would constitute a bigger political setback than the noninclusion of the assault weapons ban. The latter has been controversial from the start, among Democrats from gun-culture states as well as Republicans. The former, in contrast, has attracted some bipartisan support and is seen by many experts as the bigger item, both substantively and politically.

“This is the game, folks, and it’s always been the case: Background checks will define success or failure,” notes NBC’s “First Read” political blog Wednesday.

“First Read” adds that it is still likely that checks will be included when the bill hits the floor in April. The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month approved background check legislation drawn up by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, after all.

That bill, S. 374, would require all private gun sales between individuals to be run through the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System. For that purpose, the people involved would have to take the gun to a federally licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer.

S.374 makes exceptions for transfers between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and grandparents and grandchildren. It also contains language allowing the loan of firearms at a gun range or while hunting or otherwise for a short period of time.

But this legislation is likely just a place holder. It could not get 60 votes as it stands. Reid noted yesterday that Sens. Schumer, Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, and Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois are working on “a couple different background check proposals."

While this group is nominally bipartisan, Senator Kirk is a moderate from a bluish state whose record on gun matters is rated “F” by the National Rifle Association. To stand a chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold, any background check bill must attract the support of a more conservative Republican.

Schumer has worked hard to attract the support of Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who has sounded amenable. But this partnership has foundered over the basic background check problem: enforcement.

Specifically, those who want background checks have to resolve concerns for members from both sides of the aisle who don’t want to create a national gun registry.

This is a long-standing gun control divide. To Democrats and the moderate Republicans who want tighter gun restrictions, some kind of permanent record-keeping would be an integral part of background-check enforcement. Without it, the law would be just a suggestion. Police would have no way of knowing whether a particular firearm had been obtained legally or not.

The NRA is adamantly opposed to permanent recordkeeping, however. The organization sees that as the beginning of a federal gun registry.

In a fire-breathing speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre called universal background checks a “placebo” that will make no one safer and will “only serve as universal registration of lawful gun owners – the real goal they’ve been pushing for decades.”

“What’s the point of registering lawful gun owners anyway.... In the end, there are only two reasons for government to create that federal registry of gun owners – to tax them and to take them,” said Mr. LaPierre.

Current law prohibits the establishment of any federal electronic database of firearms owners or firearms transactions. The FBI is allowed to keep records from the existing dealer-based background check system for only a short period of time before destroying them, according to a Congressional Research Service survey of federal gun legislation.

“No other area of federal law enforcement suffers from so many legislative barriers to action,” concludes the liberal Center for American Progress, in a report on the ability of gun lobbyists to hobble firearms regulations.

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