Shannon Watts just gave a detailed and articulate response to the Pew poll which shows that a slim majority of Americans now believe that “gun rights” are more important that “gun control.” And as Shannon points out, the either-or question makes it really impossible for any poll respondent to address the fact that supporting the 2nd Amendment doesn’t ipso facto mean that someone also can’t support common-sense measures to curb gun violence, like expanded background checks.
At this point the strategy of Shannon and other gun-sense advocates appears to focus on policies enacted at the state level (e.g., expanding background checks) combined with localized, grass-roots efforts to engage corporations like Target and Starbucks to subscribe to gun-free zones. Given the 2013 defeat of Manchin-Toomey, energies at the federal level appear to be more distant and long-term, with the goal towards electing members of Congress who might eventually vote the other way. On the other hand, I happen to think that Manchin-Toomey was not quite the NRA bone-crusher that it was described to be. If anything, I was surprised at the closeness of the Senate vote and I’m not sure that gun control at the federal level is as dead as many on both sides would like to believe.
The fact is that had background checks been extended to cover all private transactions, and if, as Shannon says, private transactions account for 40% of all movement of guns, then what Manchin-Toomey represented was an enormous expansion of government control over what gun owners can and cannot do with their guns. This would have been the fourth time that the federal government, beginning in 1938, regulated the ownership and transfer of civilian guns, but in all three prior instances, the regulation was aimed at the behavior of federally-licensed dealers and said nothing about the behavior of gun owners themselves.
The 1938 law created the federal gun license and mandated that dealers could only sell guns to residents of their own state. The original federal firearms license, or FFL, cost one buck. The 1968 law, known as GCA68, established certain categories of ‘prohibited persons,’ i.e., felons, mentally ill, drug addicts, fugitives, et.al., but again prohibited federally-licensed dealers, not individual gun owners, from engaging in transactions with such individuals and also prohibited private individuals from buying mail-order guns if they came from another state. Finally, the 1993 Brady Bill updated the process that allowed dealers to determine by contacting the FBI at the point of sale whether the purchaser was telling the truth about not being prohibited from owning a gun.
The bill proposed after Sandy Hook was a horse of a different color altogether. It left government regulation of federal dealers intact but for the first time gave government the right to regulate the behavior of gun owners themselves as to how, when and where those selfsame gun owners could sell or acquire guns. In one fell swoop, the government would go from looking over the dealer’s shoulder while a transaction was being conducted inside the shop, to looking over the shoulder of every gun owner if/when that owner decided to make any change in the number or type of guns that he owned.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not making any kind of argument against the reasonableness of universal background checks. What I am suggesting, however, is that extending background checks to almost all gun transactions is almost a tectonic change in the regulatory authority of the Federal government, and I don’t know any changes of such scope that happen all at once.
The bill that became GCA68 was first introduced in 1963. The Brady Bill spent six years floating around Congress before it became law. Both were signed by Presidents who just happened to come from gun-rich states. I’m not so sure that energetic and effective advocates like Shannon need to forget going directly to Congress until after 2016. After all, like we say in the gun business, it never hurts to show the product, even if this year’s buying season has come and gone.