April 11, 2013

Our View: Bills represent progress in preventing gun violence

Sens. Collins and King should support background checks and other measures.

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, a silence fell over the political world, broken only by pledges that a crime so terrible should never be allowed to happen again.

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The word "hope" is illuminated outside a Woodbury, Conn., funeral home hosting the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary Principal Dawn Hochsprung last Dec. 19. In the same spirit of unity that prevailed after six adults and 20 children were shot to death at Sandy Hook, senators should reject filibuster efforts and pass a reasonable and moderate package of gun control reforms.

2012 File Photo/The Associated Press

Many ideas were offered to protect innocents from gun violence, some of which, according to the polls, had broad-based support.

But if it ever seemed like it would be easy to agree on the changes that need to be made, that notion didn't last long. The country's politics quickly returned to their closely divided worst, making any compromise seem elusive.

As early as Thursday, the U.S. Senate may take its first votes on a reasonable and moderate package of reforms that would make the nation safer.

The bills would:

Require background checks for almost all gun sales, not just the ones involving licensed dealers.

•  Increase the penalties for gun trafficking and "straw purchases," in which someone buys a gun for a person who is barred by law from doing so.

•  Provide grants to help schools improve their security.

Maine's senators should support all of these measures, recognizing that although they are not going to end violence, at least they may save some families from the anguish that comes from having too many guns in the hands of the wrong people.

FILIBUSTER THREATENED

As has become typical in the U.S. Senate, the discussion is likely to center not on the merits of the issues but on whether there will be a debate at all.

Thirteen Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have threatened to filibuster the bill to prevent it from coming to a vote, standing in the way of action on this crucial issue. We hope Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King will use whatever influence they have to make sure this doesn't happen.

The most important part of the package would be the extension of instant background checks to all commercial sales, not only those involving licensed dealers. Currently, anyone who thinks he can't pass a background check in a gun store because of his criminal or mental health record knows he can buy a gun anyway by going through a private seller.

This reform would not bar anyone now eligible to buy a gun from doing so. Enacting it doesn't mean that no criminal or person with mental illness would ever get hold of a gun, but some wouldn't -- and all would have a harder time acquiring one.

A similar bill is before the Maine Legislature, and state lawmakers should pass it, but this issue would be better resolved with a single national standard that doesn't turn some states into arsenals for other states' criminals.

Some opponents of the bill have claimed that expanding background checks would create a de facto national gun registry. We disagree.

The FBI would still be required to destroy records of the background checks it conducts. With a few exceptions, all private gun sellers would be required to keep a record of their sales, just as licensed gun dealers are today.

These sales records would provide a vital paper trail for police investigating gun crimes. In Portland, for instance, police know that two homicides were committed with the same gun, but they can't trace the gun to its owner because it was once sold at a gun show without a background check.

COLLINS' BILL

Making gun trafficking a federal felony is a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Collins, and it would be an important reform. But this law would work better with expanded background checks than it would without them. If no background check is required in a private sale, it's too easy for a trafficker to buy and resell guns without anyone noticing.

The package could have been stronger. We wish that it included an assault weapons ban or a limit in magazine capacity.

But the provisions in the bill represent the ideas with the broadest support. Senators should back them, or at least allow them to get an up-or-down vote. This issue is too important to be blocked by parliamentary maneuvers.

Senators should remember the silence after Newtown, and remember what it felt like before the politicking resumed. No law is perfect, but that's not a reason to do nothing. It is possible to respect the rights of law-abiding and peaceful gun owners, while still trying to do a better job of keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

These bills take small but positive steps to make us safer, and they should be made law.

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