It’s clear the country has lost perspective in the discussion about gun safety when even after the most gut-punching of wake-up calls, such as the murder of 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school, or the latest burst of senseless gun violence, which last week claimed two innocent lives in Virginia, the most innocuous reforms become instant nonstarters.
Expanding mandatory background checks, already required for gun purchases made through federally licensed firearm dealers, to private sales would cut off one avenue by which the unstable or criminal-minded obtain weapons, and it would do so without placing an undue burden on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.
Yet even this incremental approach to improving U.S. gun laws is painted as extreme, thanks to loud and powerful opponents who continue to deny the role of guns in gun violence, and refuse to give any ground or offer any solutions to the country’s outsized problem with gun-related deaths.
We are losing faith in the ability of the majority of Americans who back sensible gun laws to overcome the gun lobby, but that is what needs to happen if any change is to occur.
So even if there is little hope of action on the federal level, or in the state Legislature, Maine can take meaningful steps in the right direction by backing a recently announced effort to put universal background checks on the statewide ballot in 2016.
State-level checks are less effective than a nationwide system, as those with criminal records or mental health issues can simply go to a nearby state with more lax gun laws, just as so many guns now make their way from Maine to Massachusetts, which has strict firearm regulations.
And universal background checks would by no means stop all dangerous people from obtaining guns.
But they would make it more difficult. And in a country with nearly 300 million guns, with rates of firearm violence and homicide far higher than other wealthy nations, and with so many examples of petty, perceived grievances that end in gunshots, that is important.
Any hurdle or delay in putting that weapon in the hands of someone dangerous makes it more likely they’ll get caught, get the help they need or change their mind.
And the cost of the extra scrutiny? At worst, minor inconveniences for the law-abiding Mainers who want to take part in a private gun sale, and who would then have to find a licensed firearm dealer – of which there are many in Maine – to run a check.
Those are, after all, the same background checks that already are a part of every sale through a licensed dealer.
Last year alone, 21 million background checks were run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and 99 percent of the time it is a simple and quick process. Background checks are not getting in the way of anyone who lawfully wants to obtain a firearm.
But they are catching a few people who shouldn’t have guns – almost 91,000 in 2014, and about 1.16 million since the checks began in 1998.
Of course, those denied through the national background-check system can now easily purchase a firearm through a private sale, such as at a gun show or through the classifieds, where 40 percent of gun sales now take place.
Universal background checks would close that loophole, just as they would discourage the sale of stolen firearms, and cut down the number of guns available through the black market, in our state and others.
That’s why a majority of Americans agree with universal background checks, and why Maine voters should put them in place if state and federal lawmakers won’t.