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Rob Horowitz: Universal Background Checks Gain Traction

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

 

As The New York Times reported on Sunday, there is significant movement in the Senate towards a bi-partisan agreement on universal background checks—the single gun control measure viewed by experts as having the most potential to reduce gun violence. The proposed expanded background check will close the gun show loophole which now results in a substantial percentage of guns being purchased without a check to see if the purchaser is a criminal, has a history of domestic violence, or is seriously mentally ill.

The legislation being worked out between Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) will also include penalizing states who fail to provide a current list of criminals and others who should be denied the ability to purchase a gun to the national background check system and increased penalties for straw purchasers of guns—
another typical way guns get in the hands of criminals.

One can tell that universal background checks are gaining traction in Congress by the overheated words of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Wayne LaPierre. In a speech over the weekend, LaPierre trained most of his considerable bombast on the idea of background checks. “This so-called background check is aimed at one thing — registering your guns,” he said. “When another tragic opportunity presents itself, that registry will be used to confiscate your guns … Imagine right now your name on a massive government list.”

Of course, the chances of the government ever coming to take away Americans’ guns are ‘less than zero’ to borrow the apropos title of a Brett Easton Ellis novel. The NRA, however, knows that some gun owners believe this is a real threat and is working to activate them in order to slow down the momentum behind expanding background checks. On this issue the NRA is fighting uphill. More than 9-in-10 voters, along with a similar percentage of gun owners, support universal background checks, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll.

It would be much preferred, of course, if a more robust package that includes limits on magazine capacity and an assault weapons ban would advance. But despite Newtown, a more sweeping measure probably has little chance. A telling result from the same Quinnipiac Poll that recorded such overwhelming support for background checks highlights the continued difficulty of winning a broader package; when given a choice between who better reflects their views, The National Rifle Association or President Obama, a narrow plurality of voters, 46% to 43%, actually choose the NRA.

The case for more limited legislation centering on expanding background checks becomes even more apparent when one couples this kind of mixed public opinion with the resistance of even some Democratic Senators to a broader package. Throw in the lobbying power of the NRA and the difficulty of winning support in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives for a more sweeping package and it becomes just about a no-brainer.

Winning adoption of universal background checks and tougher penalties on straw purchasers will not by itself solve the problem of gun violence which continues to plague our nation. Still, it is an important step forward toward a more common sense national policy on guns. It is good to see progress being made that puts an important incremental policy gain—one with the potential to make a significant dent in the problem--within our grasp.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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