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It appears legislation that would expand and strengthen background checks for gun purchases has the highest chance of passage among several proposals Congress will consider in the coming months. While such a change would not be nearly enough if the country wants to get serious about curbing gun violence, and particularly the type of mass killing seen in Newtown, it would be a significant achievement given the fervor of the gun rights lobby in this country.
Speaking Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he anticipates legislation to expand background checks will receive broad bipartisan support. This followed news that two Republican and two Democratic senators are working on such legislation - Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sens. Manchin and Coburn have an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association for their support of gun rights, while Sens. Kirk and Schumer received NRA failing grades. If they find common ground on expanded background checks the resulting legislation is likely to win Senate approval and could build momentum for House authorization as well.
Since 1999 the federal background check system has blocked about 1.7 million gun sales because of identified criminal records, domestic abuse histories, serious mental illnesses and other red-flag issues. Unfortunately, background checks are required only for those purchasing guns from a federally licensed dealer. Gun buyers purchase about 40 percent of firearms at gun shows or from private dealers, without a review. There are no estimates for how many people denied a gun from a dealer turned to these alternatives to get a weapon. The pending legislation is expected to make the background check requirement almost universal.
As Connecticut's Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy noted in a press briefing Monday, the vast majority of NRA members and gun owners support background checks for anyone wishing to purchase a gun. The NRA is out of touch in opposing even this common-sense reform.
Sen. Coburn is reportedly insisting on an exception for firearms passed along in families. That's reasonable. Less palatable is Sen. Coburn's insistence that the bill not include a national gun registry to track guns and gun owners. Such resistance is based on irrational fears of the government using a registry to seize weapons and monitor gun owners. But in this case inferior legislation would be far preferable to no legislation.
Much tougher to pass will be proposals to limit the bullet capacity of gun magazines and banning the civilian sales of semi-automatic assault-style firearms. Gun reform advocates should not give up on these efforts, but they will take time and perhaps the outcome of future elections.
Closing the massive loopholes in the federal background-check law would be an important step, however, and could provide the foundation for later reforms.