In April, U.S. senators shot down, by a narrow margin, a sensible measure that would have expanded background checks on firearms purchases, including those made at gun shows and on the Internet. They’ll have another chance to get it right.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R., Pa.), who crafted the original amendment, are working on a similar plan to broaden background checks that is expected to go back to the Senate this year. A handful of senators who opposed the previous amendment — including Republican Rob Portman of Ohio — will decide the new plan’s fate.
Advocacy groups such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Progress Ohio are targeting Mr. Portman. A rally last month in Dayton gathered community leaders and gun violence survivors.
Mr. Portman is considered one of the few senators with an open enough mind — and enough sense — possibly to change his mind, and his vote. Other Republican senators who are considered persuadable include Jeff Flake of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
To his credit, Mr. Portman has met with victims of gun violence, including families from Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 elementary schoolchildren and six adults last December.
Mr. Portman told The Blade’s editorial page last week that he would keep an open mind on new background-check legislation. But he reasserted his objections to the original measure, arguing that it would have burdened law-abiding Ohioans while doing practically nothing to make streets and neighborhoods safer. He also cited his efforts on prisoner re-entry and drug treatment — issues on which he has become a voice of reason and a shining light in the Senate.
But his efforts, or lack of them, on gun safety have been off target. According to a recent poll, 84 percent of Ohio voters support comprehensive background checks. These voters should make it clear to Senator Portman that he has a lot to lose — possibly including the next election — if he fails to listen to them.
The amendment that Mr. Portman helped defeat would merely have broadened an existing public safety procedure, mandating background checks before sales at gun shows and in other commercial settings, including the Internet.
Federal law now requires background checks only when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers. Privately, even many gun dealers favor a more-uniform background check system to level the commercial playing field.
Mr. Portman is right that comprehensive background checks won’t end gun violence, or even eliminate most of it. Nor will they prevent every mass shooting. But it is wrong to argue that they are practically irrelevant to the larger problem of gun violence.
Background checks are already working: Between 1994, when background checks were mandated as part of the Brady Act, and 2008, they prevented more than 1.8 million people from buying guns. Still, as many as 40 percent of gun transfers now occur privately and, therefore, without checks.
Senator Portman should continue his broad efforts to reduce violence. In the meantime, however, it’s misguided of Congress not to take gun-safety measures that would protect people now.