Wonders never cease.
It took two back-to-back mass shootings, but Republicans in the Senate, President Donald Trump and even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are saying it’s time to talk about what many Americans support: closing a loophole in existing background checks for gun purchases and encouraging “red flag laws” to take guns away from those deemed to pose a threat to themselves or to others.
That’s a shift for all those involved, although no one should get their hopes up too high.
For starters, McConnell has said he supports debating both red-flag laws and making sure background checks apply to all purchases, but he refused to call the Senate back into session early from its August recess, as Democrats have urged. McConnell also hedged about the details, saying he wouldn’t bring up any bill for a vote unless it had Trump’s support and a filibuster-proof 60 votes on the Senate floor.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Universal background checks already exist — for every sale by a licensed firearm dealer, everywhere in the country. The loophole is that background checks are not required for private sales over the internet or at gun shows.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told the Mail Tribune Editorial Board last week he thinks the Senate is “a couple of votes away” from passing a background check bill. A bipartisan measure sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., failed by six votes in 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The House passed a background check bill this year, but McConnell so far has refused to give it a vote in the Senate.
Wyden said he heard loud and clear from constituents at a town hall last week in Beaverton that they are tired of waiting.
“We have had it with meaningless words,” attendees told him, “and we want some meaningful action.” Oregon law already requires checks on private sales.
Oregon also is one of 17 states that has enacted a so-called red flag, or extreme risk protection order (ERPO) law, which allows police to seize firearms when a judge determines an individual poses a threat to themselves or others. Family members, household members or law enforcement in Oregon can petition a court to act if they think an individual poses a threat.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll in 2018 showed 85% of respondents would support such a law.
Gun-rights advocates, including the powerful National Rifle Association, pay lip service to background checks and a law allowing the police to take guns away from people who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others, saying they support measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. But in practice, the NRA has not supported a single red-flag law that has been enacted, and has opposed attempts to close background check loopholes.
American voters disagree. Multiple polls show about 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales. A 2015 poll found that 75% of NRA members did, too.
In the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision holding that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to possess firearms, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said, “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
So the only impediment to imposing “conditions and qualifications” is political: Does Congress — in this case, the Republican-controlled Senate — have the backbone to stand up to the NRA and close the background check loophole? Will the Senate also encourage states to enact red flag laws, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he wants to do? And if so, will Trump sign those measures?
McConnell and Trump both say yes.
“What we can’t do is fail to pass something, you know, by just locking up and failing to pass — that’s unacceptable,” McConnell said Thursday.
As Trump would say, we’ll see what happens.