In the past, the National Rifle Association endorsed criminal background checks for gun buyers: This stance seemed to reinforce the old NRA mantra that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Further, background checks are consistent with government police powers, and don’t trample on Second Amendment rights. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, the NRA supported extending background checks to gun-show purchases, in lieu of tougher restrictions such as an assault-weapons ban or limit on magazine capacity.
But that, apparently, was a different political moment. Confident of its ability to control senators who feared offending its rural constituency, or perhaps just beholden to its financial supporters in the gun industry, the NRA changed course. On Wednesday, a cowardly minority of senators blocked expanded background checks for gun purchases, ignoring the desires of the American people. It was, as President Obama said, “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
The proposal before the Senate would have closed loopholes that allow people to buy deadly firearms at gun shows and on the Internet without having their names checked against mental health and criminal records. It’s a reform that 9 out of 10 Americans support, with good reason. Only 60 percent of gun sales take place through licensed gun dealers required to undertake background checks, leaving too much room for weapons to fall into the wrong hands.
The compromise worked out by senators Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, didn’t require a background check on every gun purchase, still allowing many person-to-person sales to go on without scrutiny. It even outlawed a national gun registry. It was, in every sense, the least lawmakers could do.
Yet most Republicans and a handful of Democrats — Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — proved too spineless to support even the bare minimum. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, was the only senator from New England to oppose the measure. She argued that it put too high a burden on law-abiding gun buyers, emphasizing instead her support for addressing gaps in mental health treatment as well as curtail gun trafficking.
Ayotte is right that any reform to gun laws should be part of a comprehensive package to thwart gun violence. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t have been a tough yes vote for her. She should have been part of the small contingent of Republicans — John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine — and red-state Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina who put aside fears of reproach by the NRA.
Meaningful gun control reforms continue to proliferate on the state and local level, giving hope that the lessons learned from tragedies such as Newtown, Aurora, and Oak Creek, do not pass in vain.