June 19, 2013

Greg Kesich: Killing background check measures protects illegal sales

It doesn't matter if the majority supports something if the minority has more passion.

It is another good day for convicted felons and the people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. They'll still be able to buy guns in Maine without having to pass a background check.

It looked like 2013 would have been a tough year for them and their allies in the gun lobby. Twenty innocent first-graders were slaughtered in a Connecticut classroom in late December, the latest in a string of mass killings that had more Americans wondering if the unfettered right to own firearms was interfering with the right to avoid getting shot. Bills were drafted for Augusta and Washington, and it looked like something might really happen this time.

But criminals and gun buyers judged to be a threat to themselves or others were bailed out by pressure from sportsmen, gun collectors and home defenders, who have decided that their constitutional right to bear arms is somehow linked to protecting illegal gun sales.

They are single-issue voters who put the brakes on any kind of reform by letting lawmakers know they would not survive if they backed anything that looked like gun control.

On Monday, a compromise version of the background check bill that would have created a civil penalty for selling a gun without a background check to a buyer who is legally ineligible to buy one that had passed the House was amended into oblivion in the Maine Senate. Under the Senate version, the seller would be penalized only if he knew that the sale was illegal and went ahead with it anyway. As long as the buyer lied about his identity or record, the seller would have no responsibility to check it out.

So, let's review: If you serve a friend too much to drink and he crashes his car on the highway, you can be held liable in court for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. But if you sell a gun to Whitey Bulger and he whacks the next person he sees, you don't even have to worry about getting a ticket as long as he didn't tell you his real name. Murder is just the price we pay for living in a free society.

Background checks did not fare any better on the national level. A compromise universal background check bill sponsored by conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and really conservative Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania failed to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate. The measure got a majority of votes (including both Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King), but it could not get over the 60-vote hurdle that is routinely imposed by the minority these days.

Obstruction is nothing new in our polarized politics, but this should not be a polarizing issue.

A Pew Research Center poll in January found 81 percent support for universal background checks, drawing nearly equal support from Democrats (83 percent), Republicans (81 percent) and independents (80 percent).

In Maine, 90 percent of people polled by Pan Atlantic Consulting in April supported extending instant background checks to all private sales. But 90 percent support is not good enough in a democracy. At least not when the issue is guns.

Issue polls can be tricky, but there is no way to read these numbers to mean anything other than most people think gun buyers should have to go through a background check, whether they are buying from a sporting goods store, over a website or through an ad in Uncle Henry's. Right now, only the sporting goods store is covered.

Who could be for background checks only some of the time? Why give people who know that they can't pass one a no-check option?

Credit the National Rifle Association with framing the issue in its favor. Requiring background checks in all sales, not just some, is not a common-sense reform that could keep guns out of the wrong hands, they say, but the first step in a war against gun ownership. Gun owners, they tell us, are a bulwark against tyranny, and any impediment to keeping and bearing (and buying and selling) guns is a vote for oppression.

The argument doesn't make a lot of sense, but the strength of the argument isn't what usually carries the day.

These guys won because they cared more. It wasn't lobbyists testifying at hearings, it was individual members of groups like the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine calling and writing their legislators to let them know that this issue matters more to them than anything else and making the lawmakers believe it. There is little political cost for politicians who don't deliver on gun control, but no one wants to find out what happens to the ones who fail the gun lobby.

And until that passion gap closes, nothing will change.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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