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The new Congress should expand gun-sale background checks and ban assault-style rifles

The new Congress should expand gun-sale background checks and ban assault-style rifles
The gun department in a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Arlington, Va. on March 1, 2018. (Olivier Douliery / TNS)

The shift of the House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control offers a glimmer of hope that Congress might actually find a way to pass some common-sense gun bills. Two serious efforts have already begun.

One bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) and in the Senate by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), would extend mandatory background checks for would-be buyers to nearly every gun sale or transfer in the country. Those checks are designed to keep people who cannot legally own firearms, such as convicted felons, from buying them.

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Of course, the effectiveness of such a system hinges on having up-to-date and reliable databases to identify people who aren’t allowed to own guns, as well as effective enforcement of the background check requirement. But the loopholes in the current system, which does not generally require private sellers to conduct background checks, are big enough for any would-be killer or person contemplating suicide to saunter right through.

Public support for a ban on semiautomatic rifles is, unfortunately, shakier than that for background checks.


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The other measure, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would revive a ban on private possession of semiautomatic rifles, the combat-style guns commonly referred to as assault rifles that do not belong in the hands of civilians. It also would ban the sale and possession of high-capacity magazines that make deadly weapons even more so.

Unfortunately, both bills face some high hurdles — namely, the National Rifle Assn., pro-gun members of Congress and President Trump, who owes his election in part to more than $30 million in NRA campaign spending and who sees himself as a staunch defender of the 2nd Amendment.

But a comprehensive background check system does not imperil gun rights. It helps keep guns out of the hands of people who aren’t supposed to have them — something that even gun owners support. Polls show that eight or nine out of 10 Americans back universal background checks, including 79% of Republicans and 69% of NRA members, according to one poll. Studies are mixed on the impact of tight background check laws such as California’s, in part because private sellers skirt the law and in part because it’s easy to drive to another state with weaker rules to stock one’s arsenal. A national requirement would make the checks harder to avoid, but again, enforcement is key. Studies also show that states with rigid background check systems have reduced levels of gun trafficking,which by itself makes a compelling case for tougher checks on sales.

Public support for a ban on semiautomatic rifles is, unfortunately, shakier than that for background checks. In fact, a majority of Americans now oppose such bans, according to recent Gallup polls, though in the aftermath of the massacre of 26 people at a Texas church in November 2017, a majority supported a ban. That’s a perplexing dynamic. Mass killings are emotionally difficult for the nation (not to mention the survivors, the victims’ families, and the communities in which they live), so it makes sense that an outrageous act like an attack on a church or a school erodes support for private ownership of the military-style weapons involved. That support for a ban then wanes over time reflects a basic social tension: the balance between what is perceived to be the exercise of an individual’s right to own a gun and the broader public’s right to go about one’s daily life safely.

But there’s a more fundamental and practical issue here. High-powered and high-capacity semiautomatic rifles are designed for one purpose: to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. It’s true that the vast portion of our gun violence, including suicides, involves handguns, but that’s no reason to allow civilians to buy, sell and possess firearms that are designed for combat. And people seeking a gun for self-defense in the home, as allowed under the Supreme Court’s troublesome 2008 Heller decision, are better off with a handgun or shotgun, either of which is easier to control and less likely to send bullets through neighbors’ walls. Congress banned the sale of assault-style weapons for a decade under a measure authored by Feinstein, but let it lapse in 2004. The NRA has stymied efforts to revive it, and while the NRA’s support and influence seem to be waning amid investigations over possible connections with Russian election meddlers, the gun group still has die-hard adherents on Capitol Hill.

Despite those headwinds, it’s time to reenact the ban and make it permanent. And it’s well past time to limit sales only to buyers who are legally allowed to have them.

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