In the wake of the defeat of gun background check legislation this week, President Barack Obama said senators opposed to the bill and its amendments could offer no good reason for that opposition, and that “there were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this.”
Before the vote, Nevada’s own U.S. Sen. Dean Heller offered his reasons.
■ “I believe very strongly 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 said. “At the same time, I cannot support legislation that infringes upon the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”
Bear in mind that the amendment offered by U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would simply have expanded the current background check requirement to online and gun-show purchases. The same background check now required at a gun store would be required at a gun show.
Heller obviously doesn’t believe background checks themselves infringe on constitutional rights — he said himself he wants to strengthen the current system. So what’s the objection?
Heller’s office said the bill puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens rather than keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill. But any “burden” created in extending background checks to online and gun-show sales is no greater than that which already exists when buying weapons at a gun store. And since we know that background checks stop thousands of people who should not have guns from purchasing them every year, the amendment clearly would have kept criminals and the mentally ill from buying firearms — legally, at least.
■ “Despite the good-faith efforts of Sens. Manchin and Toomey, the onerous paperwork and expansion of federal power mandated in this legislation are too great of a concern,” Heller said.
Again, the only new paperwork requirements are that buyers of guns online or at gun shows would have to fill out the forms required now for gun-store sales, and licensed dealers would have to retain those records as required by law. The amendment would have closed a well-known loophole.
■ “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens. For these reasons, I cannot vote for this legislation,” Heller said.
Here, let’s give the senator his due: The bill prohibits the attorney general from creating a national gun registry, and it creates criminal penalties for doing so. But opponents say it does not prohibit another federal agency from creating a de facto registry. This concern was raised with the authors of the amendment, but it went unaddressed.
It would have been an easy fix: Simply amend the language to say no federal, state or local agency may use background-check information to create a gun registry. The fact that this was not done raises concerns. While it was clearly not the intention of the amendment to create a gun registry, it’s difficult to see why the bill could not have been amended to address an obvious objection.
Was this reason enough to vote against the bill? Heller said so, although it could easily be argued the much-needed improvements made by the legislation clearly outweigh the potential detriments.
Cynics will suggest Heller said no to the Manchin-Toomey amendment because he feared his Republican base would punish him. They will insinuate campaign contributions and other political support from gun-rights groups swayed his vote. It’s impossible for anybody to know for sure.
But Heller said repeatedly he’s in favor of strengthening background checks. This amendment — while imperfect, as they all are — would have accomplished that goal.
So if not this, then what? Sadly, the answer now is “nothing.”
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 or firstname.lastname@example.org.