With Democrats in control of the U.S. House, entities such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence see renewed opportunity to pass what has been deemed by many as “common-sense” gun control laws. One of the first pieces of legislation the Nancy Pelosi-led House will take up is the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019.
It would seem an easy call to support such legislation. The bill, by its very title, does have a couple of Republican co-sponsors, polling consistently shows background checks are popular, and House Speaker Pelosi wants it badly.
The conventional wisdom in Maine during the 2016 expanded background check referendum, Question 3, was quite similar. The referendum had bipartisan backing and was well financed. Additionally, polls consistently showed background checks to be popular in Maine. In fact, early polling had the ballot question enjoying overwhelming support. Despite these facts, when voters had their say, expanded background checks were soundly rejected.
Why, one might ask? Well, there are background checks and, then there are background checks.
Like Maine’s Question 3, the bill being debated in the House would expand background check requirements to private sales. Unfortunately, it would also expand checks to casual loans, sales or trades between friends. Not only are such transfers common in Maine; more importantly they are not a problem when it comes to gun violence.
It is well understood that purchasing a firearm at a gunshop or sporting goods store (and virtually every gun show in Maine) is accompanied by a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. NICS has been the law of the land since the 1990s. The absence of these requirements in privates sales and transfers is seen as a loophole to be exploited by felons as a means around the law. However, just like the Question 3 referendum, the proposal headed to the House floor following markup by the House Judiciary Committee goes too far and thus is doomed to fail.
Gun ownership and firearm use in Maine is not unlike that in much of rural America. The culture is passed down from one generation to the next. Shooting sports are part and parcel of the outdoor heritage in vast reaches of our country. Whether used for hunting, competitive shooting, gun-smithing, self-defense or as an investment, responsible firearm husbandry is deeply ingrained in those who comprise the gun-owing community.
That culture includes the exchange of firearms, commonly referred to as “casual transfers,” between friends and colleagues. I clearly remember my own father swapping guns with his buddies. In fact, the Remington 870 I now own — one of the first of that model produced in the late ’40s — was obtained by my dad when he swapped it for his 700 model with his good friend. Long-term loans, a common practice among fellow sportsmen, are also an important part of the gun community. It’s not uncommon for a fellow hunter to borrow a certain type of rifle for an entire season or for a shooting sport enthusiast to take loan of a specific shotgun to shoot skeet or trap. Like Question 3, only under the narrowest of circumstances would these long-held traditions be exempt from expanded background checks under the proposed law.
Requiring casual transfers to be subject to background checks overloads an already overburdened NICS system. More importantly, it does nothing to prevent gun violence.
An option that should be considered is the expansion of background checks contained in the legislation once proposed by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. The language in the Manchin/Toomey compromise — supported by Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King — narrowly expanded the NICS requirement to advertised transactions. That compromise, which previously failed in the Senate, may come back. Recently Toomey spoke about how, with a change to Democratic control, the House is more likely to pass the bill and send it to the Senate where, he said, “we’ve got a shot at doing something.”
The goal of lawmakers should be good public policy. The Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019 fails in that regard. But, with the Manchin/Toomey compromise, there is another, more reasonable option available to lawmakers.
Bobby Reynolds of Manchester was communications director for Rep. Jared Golden’s campaign for Congress and spokesman for the 2016 Yes on 3 campaign.