President Obama this week chose to do Something Big about guns. But he should’ve started small. He should’ve started with the bad guys.
He should’ve started with one item—background checks—and thrown his political capital into that.
Why? Because background checks keep guns out of the hands of known bad guys. And while that single action on its own wouldn’t have prevented the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—sometimes it’s the unknown bad guys who get guns—expanding the system of background checks for gun buyers might, over time, reduce the overall level of day-to-day gun violence that permeates our urban lives.
How would that work?
It turns out there’s already bipartisan agreement, mostly, that certain sectors of society shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms. Felons. Veterans who received dishonorable discharges. People who have been committed to mental institutions. And a few other categories. When federally licensed gun shops do background checks, these are the people who are supposed to be flagged and rejected for gun ownership.
To some extent, that system has been effective, resulting in 1.5 million gun rejections over 14 years.
But there are big holes in the system. Nineteen states—including Pennsylvania—have declined to contribute more than 100 mental health records to the system, suggesting there are million of eligible names that should be in the background check database, but aren’t.
And, of course, perhaps as much as 40 percent of all gun sales don’t use the background check system, because they fall under the so-called “gun show loophole.” Bizarrely, some Second Amendment defenders deny the loophole even exists, but the reality is that private sellers at gun shows, flea markets, or Internet sellers often exchange guns for money, without any background checks being performed. Eliminate that loophole—with some exemptions for passing a gun down through a family—it it becomes more difficult for the wrong people to improperly buy a gun.
Some defenders of gun rights still hate background checks, saying they cut against a “presumption of innocence” that gun buyers should enjoy. I’m not sure if that’s a Constitutional argument—that presumption seems to belong mainly to courts of law more than bureaucratic record checks—but in reality, government does this kind of thing all the time: When you get carded while buying wine at the store, you’re being subjected to a background of sorts. If it’s an intrusion on liberty, it’s a manageable one.
There are other measures that could help keep guns out of the wrong hands. Gov. Corbett, to his credit, just signed a bill that toughens prison sentences for “straw purchasers” of guns—criminals who circumvent the background checks by letting people with clean records buy a gun for a felon.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Because the president should start with small ambitions.
Despite the howls of tyranny coming from some quarters on the right, there’s nothing in his 10 legislative proposals or 23 “executive actions” that suggest the president is coming for anybody’s guns, at least if they possess them legally. But by offering such a large program—again, 10 legislative proposals and 23 executive actions—the president has created a huge target for conservatives and gun advocates. We could spend the entirety of his next four-year term just debating this one agenda.
Starting with one, small act—improving background checks—would’ve reduced the size of that target, made it harder to mischaracterize the president as swooping down with black helicopters to confiscate private guns. It would’ve been achievable.
The president’s attempt to “go big” is understandable, though. It’s the way he’s made, and it’s also true that Sandy Hook seems to have affected him greatly. But sometimes the most effective agendas are pursued one small chunk at a time. Given the deep feelings on both sides of the gun debate, that’s probably true this time around, as well.