Sanity on guns


When the U.S. Senate takes up gun legislation next week, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines won’t be part of the main debate. Even so, advocates of sensible gun-control measures — and they include most Americans — can still hope, and push for, life-saving changes in the nation’s firearms laws.

A bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would expand federal background checks for firearms buyers and impose stiffer penalties for illegal gun trafficking. Both measures are more achievable politically than an assault weapons ban, and probably would be more effective in reducing gun violence. Handguns, not assault weapons, are used in the vast majority of gun homicides.

A bipartisan group of senators appears to agree that background checks need to expand to cover most private sales, including those conducted at gun shows and over the Internet. As many as 40 percent of gun transfers occur privately.

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Ohio Sen. Rob Portman could play a pivotal role in determining whether expanded background checks and other measures pass the Senate. He is among senators targeted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in TV ads that promote legislation to reduce gun violence. Senator Portman should take this historic opportunity to help make his state and nation safer, and less likely to suffer the kind of horrific mass murders witnessed at Newtown and Columbine.

Universal background checks would close a gaping hole in the system that allows guns to flow from legal to illegal hands. They would not eliminate illegal purchases, but they would make such transactions more difficult. Even under the current system of background checks, more than 2 million prospective purchasers have been denied.

In the debate on universal background checks, record-keeping requirements for sales continue to be a sticking point. The big question is whether private sellers should conform to the same requirements as licensed firearms dealers to maintain sales records.

Of course they should. Common sense dictates that gun sales should be handled no differently from automobile transactions. Expanded record-keeping would help police trace guns and ensure that private sellers make background checks.

Gun-control and safety laws unquestionably reduce violence. With some of the strictest gun-control laws in Europe, Britain reported 138 gun deaths in 2009. With five times the population, the United States reported nearly 10,000.

To be sure, cultural differences between the countries partly account for the disparity in gun deaths, but stricter gun laws certainly played a part. Americans don’t favor the heavy restrictions imposed on British citizens for gun ownership. Still, they are way ahead of their political leaders on this issue.

Unfortunately, the massacre of 20 children — and six educators who were trying to save them — at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December wasn’t enough to prod Congress to stand up to the gun lobby and support an assault weapons ban. But politics is the art of the possible.

Inserting an assault weapons ban into the main gun-control bill could have prevented even a debate on the legislation. Now, the Senate must focus on other gun-safety measures.

Universal background checks would mark a real step forward. Americans must keep the pressure on Congress to take that step.