Sen. Portman’s play

4/16/2013
Portman
Portman

Any reforms that emerge from the gun-control bill before the U.S. Senate are likely to fall shamefully short of what most Americans hoped for, and expected, just three months ago. Even with compromises, however, senators can make changes that will protect people.

The Senate will consider — but almost certainly defeat — an amendment that would ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. That is an appalling retreat.

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Other amendments, pushed by the gun lobby, could even weaken some gun laws, such as applying concealed-weapons permits nationally. Senators should reject that reckless idea. It would abrogate the right of states to make their own public-safety rules and, in effect, make the most relaxed state concealed-carry laws the national standard.

More positively, a bipartisan Senate proposal that would strengthen background checks, crafted by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, offers the best hope for sensible change.

Getting the bill through the Senate, however, will be practically impossible without support from some moderate and open-minded Republicans, such as Ohio’s Rob Portman. Regrettably, Mr. Portman last week supported a failed GOP-led filibuster of the gun legislation. It’s time for him to reconsider.

The amendment proposed by Mr. Manchin and Mr. Toomey — both gun guys — in no way compromises Second Amendment rights. It would broaden an existing public safety procedure, requiring background checks before sales at gun shows and in other commercial settings, including the Internet and classified ads.

Private sellers would conduct background checks through licensed dealers, using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System run by the FBI. Background checks would not be required for exchanges between family members or friends.

Federal law now requires background checks only when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers. Expanding background checks would not lead to a national firearms registry; the bill explicitly prohibits such a registry and makes it a felony to try to create one.

The bill allows licensed dealers to sell guns to residents of any state, and protects them from liability. These industry-friendly measures don’t promote public safety, but they shouldn’t erode it, either, as long as dealers continue to follow the law.

The Senate bill also creates a national commission on mass violence. It exempts people with concealed-carry permits from background checks.

These compromises fall far short of the comprehensive gun-safety measures Americans demanded after the massacre in Connecticut of 20 elementary school students and six educators last December. Nevertheless, they vastly improve the current system, and get as close to universal background checks as Congress is likely to get.

To dismiss expanded background checks as empty symbolism, as critics of the Senate measure assert, is nonsense. Checks already are working: Between 1994, when background checks were required as part of the Brady Act, and 2008, they prevented 1.8 million people with criminal records and other restrictions from buying guns.

As many as 40 percent of gun transfers now occur privately, without background checks. The compromise crafted by Mr.Toomey and Mr. Manchin would close most of that gap.

More than 80 percent of Americans support comprehensive background checks, polls suggest. Any senator who opposes them will not only undermine the nation’s safety, but also thwart the will of the American people.