Before this week, it would have been inconceivable that a conservative Democrat whose signature campaign ad in the 2010 election featured him shooting environmental legislation with a hunting rifle could help salvage gun control. But that is exactly what West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has done. The compromise he devised with Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey to address background checks for gun buyers provided a needed impetus for the Senate to take up new gun laws next week.
The surviving gun legislation is, admittedly, far from what gun-control supporters sought in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Indeed, expectations that the slaying of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December would launch sweeping reforms, such as a revival of the assault weapons ban, are long gone. But the Manchin compromise is useful for several reasons. First, it would close the loophole that allowed vendors to sell weapons at gun shows without making background checks of the buyers. Second, it provides an opportunity for Congress to reject the pleadings of the National Rifle Association — the seemingly impregnable lobby that stands between common sense and any form of gun legislation.
The Senate’s 68-to-31 vote on Friday in favor of bringing gun legislation forward was made possible by Manchin’s and Toomey’s ability to find common language. Instead of seeking universal background checks, the legislation now extends checks for purchases at gun shows, but exempts friend-to-friend and family transactions. Those are still significant loopholes, but mentally ill killers would at the very least have a more difficult time obtaining guns.
The NRA insists such protections are ineffective and present bureaucratic obstacles to legitimate purchases. But almost no one is buying it. A Quinnipiac University poll in February found that 92 percent of the public — and 91 percent of gun owners — favor closing the gun show loophole. Going forward with a bipartisan bill that is favored by a majority of liberals and conservatives exposes the NRA as a tool of the gun makers — a corporate lobbying group masquerading as a civil-liberties organization.
In Massachusetts, the Republican Senate candidates are now split. State Representative Dan Winslow and businessman Gabriel Gomez have endorsed the Manchin compromise, but former US Attorney Michael Sullivan remains vague, maintaining that good mental-health services are the best protection against mass violence. But gun control and better mental-health treatment aren’t mutually exclusive. And in Massachusetts, as in the rest of the United States, sensible politicians should get behind the Manchin compromise.