Reviews | A Real Congressional Gun Reform Bill? Maybe it’s just
Is it still worth putting down roots? Yes, but with important caveats. This could turn out to be real progress, if — and it’s a very big “if” — it isn’t watered down once the legislation is drafted. And it’s still possible, if not likely, that the Republicans will pull off a big scam and cause the deal to fall through.
The agreement reached by the group led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is still just a framework:
- Funding for states to implement red flag laws to remove firearms from potentially dangerous people
- Funding to improve and expand community health centers to provide mental health care
- Closing of the “boyfriend loophole” which allows some people to receive domestic violence orders against them to obtain weapons
- Funding for mental health services in schools
- An ‘enhanced review process’ for people under 21 looking to buy guns
- Expanded gun dealers who must use the federal background check system
- A crackdown on “fictitious purchases” of firearms
These last two provisions attract little media attention but could represent serious reforms, if done well.
The first is to fix the system of background checks on potential gun buyers. This would clarify the definition of a federally licensed firearms dealer, which is important because purchasers of firearms from these dealers must obtain a federal background check.
Current law requires you to register as a federally licensed firearms dealer if your “primary purpose of livelihood and profit” is the regular sale of firearms. This language has created a loophole: people can make money selling guns without a license saying it’s not their main means of subsistence. You could sell guns as just a side hustle, and people looking to evade background checks could buy them from those sellers.
The group of 10 Democratic senators and 10 Republican senators are negotiating replacement language, congressional aides tell us. Although the details are evolving, tightening this provision could do something like require people who sell federally licensed firearms.
Murphy’s Senate office estimates that such a change could impact thousands of gun sales per year.
This question has already been raised following a mass shooting. In August 2019, a man killed seven people in Midland and Odessa, Texas. It turned out that when he tried to buy a gun from a licensed dealer, the federal background check system flagged his mental health issues, prohibiting the sale.
The man then purchased an AR-15 type weapon from a private seller. This seller later pleaded guilty to violating gun and tax laws. Closing this loophole would make it less inviting for people to make sales in this gray area and could give law enforcement another tool to crack down on them, according to gun safety groups.
“This part of the package is a critical step forward in being able to crack down on the private sale industry,” T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a gun violence prevention organization, told us. although he pointed out that this falls well short of universal background checks.
The second big change concerns penalties for “straw” purchases, in which people buy a gun for someone else. One of the reasons people seek out straw buyers is to avoid federal background checks.
Currently, prosecutors can target this activity, but mostly indirectly. According to congressional aides, negotiators are discussing a fix that would make it illegal to buy a gun for someone else who you know will fail a background check.
While the details matter a lot, these reforms at least have the potential to create real change. “These two policies together are important,” Heyne said.
But all of this could prove another GOP bait and switch. As we’ve noted, after major incidents of gun violence, Republicans sometimes feign openness to gun safety legislation, making headlines to that effect amid public angst. high. Then, once things have calmed down, they blame the Democratic demands for finally killing a compromise.
It could happen again. The publication of a real framework of principles makes Republicans appear open to concrete solutions. But again, they might refuse to back any specific piece of legislation, and their support for the framework might make it easier to claim that once the specifics were worked out, Democrats wanted “too much.”
That would be really perverse, given how After Ambitious gun safety reform could be, against this framework, if Republicans were to get serious.
We sympathize with those who reject this deal as even less ambitious than the universal background check proposal negotiated after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. That died when just four Senate Republicans challenged their party’s filibuster, demonstrating the GOP’s unwavering loyalty to the gun lobby.
It’s frustrating, infuriating and tragic. But what is the alternative right now?
There are times when turning down half a loaf can be an effective strategy to put you in a position to get the whole loaf, and other times it would mean you get nothing. Given the intransigence of the GOP, this looks like more Congress will do in the near future.
If it becomes law, this framework would be both a significant step forward and far from sufficient. Which is sometimes the best you can hope for. Of course, those hopes could very well be dashed.