Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey and NRA favorite Joe Manchin got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh.

Toomey and Manchin's proposal would close the "gun-show loophole," meaning if you buy a gun at a show you'll have to submit to a background check. It also covers sales over the Internet. What it doesn't cover is private sales between one person and another. You've probably heard the figure that 40 percent of gun sales happen outside licensed dealers, and while the evidence for this figure is thin, nobody really knows if it's too high or too low. Furthermore, nobody knows what proportion of that 40 percent occurs at shows, and what proportion happens when a guy sells a gun to his neighbor's cousin or to some dude he met at a party or to one of the attendees at his garage sale.

Requiring background checks at gun shows is certainly a good thing, and it will stop some people from buying guns who shouldn't be able to (like convicted felons and people with restraining orders against them). But if you want to see whether this is a big deal, just look at how tepid the NRA's response of this deal: "While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s 'universal' background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows". Given that their current position is that all background checks are a terrible burden on gun owners (that wasn't always their position, but they've moved right in recent years), that they'd come out against it was to be expected. But the lack of apocalyptic rhetoric in their statement shows that they aren't too bothered by this proposal (and Manchin and Toomey said they were in constant communication with the group as they were coming up with their plan). From the group's reaction it looks like they won't fight it that hard; better to let a weak bill pass and hope that's the end of it.

Many people, myself included, have argued throughout this debate that universal background checks are probably the most important of the gun proposals being offered. But if the system isn't universal, then the power of checks to stop people who shouldn't have guns from getting them is reduced tremendously. As far as I can tell, there'd be nothing stopping you from saying to someone with a booth at a gun show, "Listen, I don't really want to have that background check, so how about I meet you in the parking lot after the show and we'll talk about that AR-15?"

What will probably happen now is that the Toomey-Manchin proposal will become the only background-check proposal Congress seriously debates. Sure, some lefty members of Congress will introduce pieces of competing legislation, but those will be ignored, because the "mainstream" has now been defined. And in the end, we may get their non-universal background check law, President Obama will hail it as a victory, and America will be made only a tiny bit safer.

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