Analysis: Will gun background checks drive a wedge


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The gun control measures President Barack Obama announced Wednesday would make the biggest changes in federal firearms laws since 1968, but administration officials emphasized one above all: closing loopholes that allow gun purchasers to avoid background checks.

That emphasis involves political and substantive calculations.

Politically, administration officials believe that toughened background checks, something the National Rifle Association has opposed for years, could become a wedge that splits the opposition. The goal would be to separate the NRA and its most ardent supporters in Congress from others who have voted against gun control measures in the past but who may now agree with Vice President Joe Biden that “the world has changed, and it’s demanding action.”

“If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime, universal background checks is at the sweet spot,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has pushed legislation on the subject.

By contrast, other elements of Obama’s package, particularly renewing and expanding the federal ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles, tend to unite opponents of gun control. The ban is “a very hard uphill battle,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who won passage of an assault weapons ban in 1994 that expired 10 years later. “We do think the battle is worth waging,” she added.

The strategy remains far from a sure thing given the NRA’s intense opposition to any gun control measures and the long-standing reluctance of members of Congress to tangle with the gun lobby, particularly Republicans and those Democrats who represent conservative districts or states.

A less ambitious effort to strengthen the background check system passed the Senate in 1999, after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, but failed in the House, largely because of opposition from pro-gun Democrats.

But if it works, the background check proposal could serve as an engine to pull other gun control measures to passage. In much the same way, President Bill Clinton’s plan to have the federal government pay for 100,000 more police officers helped clear the way in 1994 for more controversial parts of that year’s crime bill, including the original federal assault weapons ban.

Substantively, many experts believe that toughened background checks, particularly if coupled with a federal law against gun trafficking, which the administration also has proposed, could do more to limit violence than other, more ballyhooed proposals, including the assault weapons ban.

Federal law now requires anyone who is “engaged in the business” of gun sales to obtain a license as a dealer and submit any purchases for law enforcement background checks. But anyone else who sells guns and can claim the sales are not their primary business can avoid the system entirely. That’s opened up a huge hole, through which government officials say 40 percent or more of gun sales now take place.

Not surprisingly, criminals prefer the unlicensed market of gun shows and private sales.

“If you’re looking to engage in crime, you can go to a gun dealer and produce a paper trail and a background check showing that you bought a gun, or you can go to the secondary market and have no paper trail at all,” said University of Chicago professor Jens Ludwig. Researchers who have studied people convicted of gun crimes have found that 80 percent or more bought their weapons in ways that bypassed background checks, he added.

The administration’s proposal would require that all gun sales or transfers go through background checks, with only limited exceptions such as a parent giving a gun to a child. The proposal would require federal agencies to share more information with the background check system and would aim to remove restrictions that have kept states from doing so.

It also would for the first time enact a federal law against gun trafficking, which would make it easier to prosecute so-called straw purchasers, who buy guns on behalf of felons or other people who are ineligible to make purchases on their own.

Although California and five other states have their own laws on background checks, the ease of moving guns from one state to another has limited their effectiveness, according to experts who have studied the issue. The same holds true for localities that restrict gun dealers.

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Studies of gun crimes in Chicago and New York, for example, have found that the vast majority of the weapons used were purchased elsewhere.

Polls show that proposals to ban specific weapons split the public sharply along now-familiar lines _ the Democrats’ largely urban, heavily minority and liberal coalition vs. the Republican coalition of white, often rural conservatives. Asked about banning assault weapons, Americans split 55 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Democrats heavily favored the idea; Republicans opposed it.

By contrast, requiring all gun sales to go through background checks won overwhelming support, 85 percent to 12 percent. Support for universal background checks included 85 percent of Republicans and people who said their families owned guns, the Pew survey showed.

Noticeably, although many Republican officials issued statements Wednesday that accused Obama of threatening the constitutional rights of gun owners, few said anything negative about the background check proposal. And some opponents of the assault weapons ban, such as Alaska’s Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, indicated possible approval, saying in a statement that he was pleased that Obama had called for “strengthening the enforcement of laws already on the books.”

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