Wasted Effort

04.12.13

The Senate’s Worthless Gun-Control Compromise

Not only does the Manchin-Toomey agreement on background checks for gun sales lack teeth, it will help the NRA argue that gun control doesn’t work. Adam Winkler on a law undone by loopholes.

Gun-control advocates desperate to do something in response to the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre were buoyed Wednesday by news of a bipartisan compromise on universal background checks for gun buyers. Many surely smiled when they heard Republican Sen. Pat Toomey even echoing their talking points, saying checks aren’t “gun control” but just “common sense.” For the first time in 20 years, the nation’s impasse over guns seemed to be, at least temporarily, overcome.

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Sens. Joe Manchin (left) and Pat Toomey speak to the press about background checks for gun purchases April 10. (Allison Shelley/Getty)

The compromise itself, however, is so riddled with loopholes that the results are certain to leave gun-control proponents disappointed. About the only positive thing you can say about Manchin-Toomey is that it’s so toothless, it can’t possibly infringe upon anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Advocates had hoped to close what is known in gun circles as the “private sale” loophole. Under current law, gun sales by licensed dealers require running the buyer’s name through a criminal background check. The check is conducted via a computer database and takes only a minute or two in most cases. Yet gun sales by private individuals who don’t have a federal license are permitted without a background check.

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From senators to pundits, people have been making some wild comments about gun control.

Exempting private sales is a major problem from a criminological perspective. Studies show that up to 80 percent of prisoners report obtaining their guns from private sellers. Other studies reveal that private sellers at gun shows will often readily sell their guns even to buyers who warn that they probably can’t pass a background check. Law enforcement investigating gun shows often see known gang members purchasing guns at such shows.

Even the restrictions on gun-show sales are far less than meets the eye. In fact, they’re almost worthless.

Closing the private-sale loophole was the primary objective of the Obama administration from the moment Newtown happened. Yet the Manchin-Toomey bill doesn’t close the loophole as much as reshape it.

The bill would require background checks for any sale that “occurs at a gun show or event” or “pursuant to an advertisement” on the Internet or in a publication. Yet no other private sales require a check. Transfers among family members are explicitly excluded, as are sales between friends or acquaintances (who presumably won’t meet at a gun show or pursuant to an advertisement). Yet we know that the vast majority of criminals obtain their guns from friends and family members.

In other words, Manchin-Toomey doesn’t provide anything close to universal background checks.

Even the restrictions on gun-show sales are far less than meets the eye. In fact, they are almost worthless. Under Manchin-Toomey, a private seller and a gun buyer who meet at a gun show can simply exit the show and complete the transaction in a nearby parking lot, with no background check. Or they can agree to meet after the show at a convenient location and make the sale, with no background check.

While this does impose some minor additional transaction costs on the buyers and sellers, this isn’t likely to dissuade anyone who doesn’t want to do a background check. And given the large number of private sellers willing to sell guns without a check—one study found that over 60 percent of private sellers at gun shows sold guns to people who first admitted they probably couldn’t pass a background check—don’t be surprised when this gun show sales requirement proves ineffective.

Indeed, the Manchin-Toomey compromise plays right into the NRA’s hands. It’s an example of what gun-control advocate Dennis Henigan calls the “gun-control Catch-22.” The NRA forces lawmakers to gut a proposed law, leaving it with gaping loopholes. Then, when the law predictably fails to meaningfully reduce gun violence, the NRA cites it as evidence gun control doesn’t work.

Gutted laws can’t possibly be effective. Manchin-Toomey will just be the latest example. But, hey, gun-control advocates will always be able to say they did “something” to reduce gun violence.