On gun control, watch Tom Coburn

On gun control, watch Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., rides the Senate subway on his way to the Capitol.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In my Wednesday column, I reported on the gathering signs that President Obama’s push for significant new gun control legislation is dead in the water -- mostly because the National Rifle Assn. has mounted opposition more intense than the support for new measures.

The NRA and other gun rights advocates have effectively blocked an assault weapons ban or a limit on high-capacity ammunition clips. Now they’re taking aim at the centerpiece of Obama’s gun control agenda: expanded background checks that would cover most gun sales, including those between individuals (with an exemption for immediate family members).


And one more piece: The NRA is also working to water down a proposal that once appeared likely to pass: a tougher federal law against gun trafficking. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make it illegal to buy a gun for another person if the owner has “reasonable cause to believe” the firearm will be used in criminal activity. The NRA wants to change that language to cover only straw purchasers who know they are contributing to the commission of a crime.

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So is any hope left for new gun control measures?


There is, and it comes down to one senator: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Coburn is the Senate Republican caucus' wild card on this issue. He’s deeply conservative, a defender of gun rights with an “A” rating from the NRA -- but he says he could support expanded background checks as long as they don’t require record-keeping that could create data for a national gun registry. (Nobody’s proposing such a registry, and current law prohibits background-check data from being used for one -- but it’s a worry many gun owners share.)

If Coburn supports a proposal for expanded background checks, other Republicans -- and Democrats from conservative “red states” -- will find it much easier to sign on.

“I don’t think it’s wrong for me not to want to sell my gun to a felon, right?” Coburn said at a town meeting in Oklahoma on Monday, according to the Ada (Okla.) News. “And I don’t think I want to sell my gun to somebody that’s mentally impaired. So if we can fix that -- where it’s easy for me as a gun owner to know I’m not selling my gun to a felon or somebody that’s mentally impaired, with no records kept -- I have no problem with trying to do that. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last three months.”


At another town meeting, he repeated the pitch.

“I’m for enhanced background checks because it’s a way for you to go online to make sure you’re not selling your gun to someone you wouldn’t want to have it,” he said, according to the Duncan Banner. “About 80 percent of criminals get their guns from us [responsible gun owners]. The responsible way is to check them against this nix list and they don’t know that you did it.”

A gun owner from Yukon, Okla., who attended one of Coburn’s meetings sent me an email saying the senator’s solution sounded OK to him.

“If you have nothing to hide, no one objects to a background check,” he wrote.


“The record-keeping part of it is what people fear,” he wrote. “A lot of people no longer trust our government ... . I had a background check done when I purchased my last firearm. I still worry that it puts me on a list somewhere.”

When this year’s gun control debate started, many proponents of tougher measures dismissed Coburn’s proposal for a record-free background check as toothless. Now some of them would be glad to get it.


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