Sometime this spring, in an attempt to do something — anything — on gun control, the U.S. Senate will revive a bill that would require people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers to undergo federal background checks, closing a gap often called the “gun show loophole.”

If it passes, this exceedingly modest measure will make gun purchases a tiny bit harder for criminals, people with mental illness and others who shouldn’t be roaming our streets with firearms. The National Rifle Association will scream about an imaginary threat to the Second Amendment. And liberals who favor strict, European-style firearm controls will express disgust at the measure’s painfully narrow ambition.

But as limited as the Senate proposal is, “it would be the most significant expansion of background checks in 28 years,” Jim Kessler of the centrist group Third Way, who has worked on gun legislation for decades, told me last week.

And that’s why the battle to pass it is one worth having.

Under current law, anyone who buys a firearm from a gun store or other licensed dealer must pass a federal background check, a process that normally takes less than two minutes.

But in most states, people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers, including sellers who list their wares on the internet, don’t need to pass a background check. A survey by researchers at Northeastern University estimated that 22 percent of guns are sold that way — as were, for example, the weapons used in a 2019 mass shooting in Midland and Odessa, Texas. (The suspects in last month’s shootings in Georgia and Colorado, on the other hand, apparently passed federal background checks, so the requirement wouldn’t be a panacea.)

The House of Representatives in February passed a stronger bill that would require a background check for almost anyone who obtains a gun, including through private sales, loans or gifts, except for acquisitions from immediate family members.

But that bill can’t get through the Senate. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, have said they think it’s too broad.

Manchin and Tester aren’t the only obstacles. The Senate’s “filibuster rule” requires approval from 60 out of 100 members to move legislation forward — and in the current 50-50 Senate, that means at least 10 Republicans are needed.

So, we can forget about more ambitious proposals, like the perennial crusade by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons. Feinstein’s measure has won public support from only 36 members of the current Senate, nowhere near a majority.

Given these realities, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., asked his allies to find a compromise measure that might attract Republican support, and the likeliest candidate is another hardy perennial: the bipartisan proposal broadening background checks except for family and friends, authored by Manchin and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.

“It’s modest,” Toomey acknowledged last week. Even then, he added, it would be “very difficult” to attract 10 Republican votes. The last time Manchin-Toomey came to a vote, in 2013, only four GOP senators supported it.

And why might this year be different?

Schumer’s chief Democratic scout on the issue, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, says he thinks Republicans might be movable this time because public support for gun control has grown.

“The NRA’s authority is fading; the anti-gun-violence movement’s impact is increasing,” he argued. “I think we have a chance.”

He’s at least partly right. A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 showed that general support for tougher gun control has been creeping higher.

And support for universal background checks is broad; the Pew poll found 88 percent of voters in favor of the concept, including 82 percent of Republicans.

That hasn’t moved Republicans from rural states, where gun owners are numerous, well-organized and vociferous.

But the Democrats’ push is aimed at GOP senators from urban and suburban states who need support from moderate voters, especially women, to keep their seats — senators like Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s up for reelection next year. In 2018, after a mass shooting at a Florida high school killed 17, one poll found that 96 percent of Floridians backed universal background checks.

If Republicans sink the bill, Schumer plans to use it against them in next year’s campaign.

“There will be votes,” he promised last week. “They’re feeling the heat. ... They’re not going to be able to hide anymore.”

So, from Schumer’s standpoint, this will be a useful fight — win or lose. And putting Republicans in the hot seat gives Democrats one more reason to support a compromise bill, even if it’s far less stringent than many of them would have preferred.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

(4) comments

phydeaux994

The Atlanta and Boulder mass murderers weren’t criminals until they started pulling the trigger. Putting a gun in the hands of a teenager turns a wannabe thug into a real criminal and ruins their victims lives as well as their own and the lives of those who love them. Anyone of any age can get any gun for any purpose, anonymously and easily, but that’s OK with the NRA and, not all, but most of their members. A disgrace to America by selfish people.

gjthuro

sorry Doyle but the criminals will ALWAYS get the guns they need to do what they do and the lefties are defunding the police while they also are freeing illegal and legal felons back on the streets ...what have you to say about that ???

phydeaux994

Who defunded the Police? Name a few. Who attacked and killed a Policeman on Jan 6? Why has the “Blue Lives Matter” campaign ended?

gary4books

Either the Second Amendment of the US Constitution matters or it does not. If it does, laws must pay attention to it. The age of saying "what it really means..." have passed. The Supreme Court will read it. Better to amend it or just let it be. If it is worth doing, people ought to be willing to do the work to amend it.

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