Guns are back in the headlines, with mass shootings at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and in Chicago. President Barack Obama is calling for another effort to pass some reasonable gun control legislation.
Not long ago, our own U.S. Sen. Dean Heller showed up on “Nevada Week in Review” and was asked specifically about background checks by host Mitch Fox. One of his answers caught my attention: “You can’t tell me the American people support any weakening or watering down of our Second Amendment rights. I absolutely disagree with that,” Heller said.
It was odd for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Heller himself has said we need to strengthen background checks. It was right there in the headline of a news release on his own website March 6, when he co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that “strengthens our current background check system and closes loopholes relating to the mentally ill.”
He said the same thing in a letter to constituents, writing, “I have been adamant from the beginning of the gun control debate that our current background check system needs strengthening and improving, particularly in areas that could keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill.” (Heller later was criticized for the letter after he voted against a Senate amendment that would have expanded background checks to private-party gun sales in an effort to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill.)
So, clearly, Heller doesn’t think background checks themselves are illegal, or a violation of the Second Amendment. (On this, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees.) In fact, it seems as if Heller is a big supporter of “strengthening” background checks. So why would he tell an interviewer asking about background checks that the American people don’t support “watering down” or “weakening” them?
I called Heller’s communications director, Chandler Smith, and posed a simple question: Since a background check is currently required for all gun purchases at federally licensed firearms dealers, does Sen. Heller support extending that requirement to private-party sales, too?
I specifically said I was not asking about a recent amendment against which Heller voted — he said he feared it would lead to a national gun registry somewhere in the government, although the measure specifically prohibited the attorney general from creating such a list. I specifically said I wasn’t asking about any particular piece of legislation.
Here’s the answer I finally got, via email: “Senator Heller voted against the Manchin/Toomey legislation. If any new legislation is proposed, Senator Heller will take a look at it. He will not, however, support any legislation that jeopardizes Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights.”
As I said, I specifically didn’t ask about his earlier vote. And I didn’t ask a hypothetical question, either. Private-party gun sales are going on as you read this, unfettered by background checks. Some of those gun buyers are felons, or mentally ill. Some of them intend to kill.
But instead of answering the question, Heller’s reply to yet another background check question offers another perplexing answer: The man who says he wants to “strengthen” background checks won’t support legislation that “jeopardizes Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights.” Why would he say that, when he himself has said he wants to “strengthen” background checks?
The real answer, of course, is no. Heller doesn’t support extending the current background check system to private-party gun sales. But saying that out loud would alienate the growing majority that favors this sensible approach. That’s probably a smart way to maneuver in politics, if you can do it deftly enough not to be noticed. But people who want all gun sales regulated by background checks should know one thing: Dean Heller doesn’t. No matter what else he says, that much at least is clear.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 firstname.lastname@example.org.