As Rachel noted on the show last night, nearly all the coverage of President Obama's proposals on preventing gun violence came with the same caveat: new gun laws can't pass Congress, so no one should get their hopes up.
Anyone who watches Washington can understand a certain degree of skepticism, but there's also reason to question the prevailing assumptions. For one thing, the White House is pushing a comprehensive set of proposals, but there's no reason to assume there will be one, overarching, all-encompassing bill that will get an up or down vote.
On the contrary, we're likely to see a whole bunch of bills, each with their own set of odds. An assault weapons ban may face a steeper climb, but that doesn't mean we won't see new regulations of high-capacity magazines. Strengthening existing penalties for gun trafficking may be a heavier lift than confirming a new ATF director.
And if we were to create a four-square graph, with "meaningful" on the y axis and "likely to pass" on the x axis, I think a universal background check belongs in the upper right-hand corner.
Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed an assault weapons ban as ineffective. "But in terms of background checks, in terms of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and people who have serious mental health difficulties, we want to do that, and we would take a close look at that," he told C-Span.
And who's Bob Goodlatte? He's the congressman who said five days after the Sandy Hook massacre that he'd defeat any new gun control measures that come up in this Congress.
The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan added, "Compared to an assault weapons ban, there is far greater overall consensus around the issue of strengthening background checks by requiring them in firearm sales at gun shows and in other private transactions, to end the so-called 'gun show loophole.'"
The point is, it seems hard to imagine Congress approving literally every proposal presented by Obama and crafted by Vice President Biden's task force, but there's no reason to see this as an all-or-nothing proposition -- some worthwhile measures may not pass, others might.
And as the legislative phase of the debate begins in earnest, the background-check proposal appears to be at the very top of the to-do list, for the reasons Greg Sargent explained this morning:
Every member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, needs to be asked this question: Do you believe people should be able to buy guns in America without undergoing a background check designed to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting their hands on lethal weapons that can ultimately be used in crimes and mass killings?In one sense, this is arguably the most important question at the heart of the gun debate.... Obama's package of proposals designed to beef up the background check system is in many ways more important than the assault weapons ban. A universal background check is the top priority of many gun control advocates. And the politics of background checks are considerably more favorable to Obama and Democrats then much coverage suggests.Worse, the focus on the assault weapons ban is allowing members of Congress to dodge the very difficult political question of whether they favor fixing the background check system. For instance, Senator Lindsey Graham's statement comes out against the proposed ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, but doesn't say word boo about the universal background check, even though that is the lead proposal Obama unveiled.
I don't doubt the background-check provisions will face plenty of conservative criticism, but it's worth emphasizing that new Time/CNN and New York Times/CBS News polls show overwhelming public support for this proposal -- including the strong backing of self-identified Republicans.
Opponents of universal background checks will exist, but they'll be on the fringes of the American mainstream.