When Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., visited the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board in February, he essentially predicted that Washington would end up where it is today. Asked whether an assault weapons ban had a realistic chance of passage, the longtime gun owner, Vietnam vet and Democrats' point man on crafting legislation in the wake of the horrific Dec. 14 Sandy Hook shooting replied, "You don't think this whole thing's going to get through?" His apparent assessment was that it would not.
With a foot in both the gun world and the sausage factory, Thompson has a keen sense of what is doable. "I would argue that the background check would do the most good," he said. "That's the one area where you can intervene -- before someone gets a gun."
Two months later, the assault weapons ban is presumed dead. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he couldn't find 40 votes to support Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons bill. The Senate's focus is fixed on a bipartisan compromise to close the worst loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
On Wednesday, two lawmakers with A ratings from the National Rifle Association -- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. -- unveiled a plan to require background checks on all gun show and Internet sales.
While President Barack Obama and other Democrats supported a "universal background check," the Manchin-Toomey Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act is sensitive to objections made by civil libertarians and gun rights advocates. Noncommercial gun sales would be exempt, which means gun owners would be able to give or sell a gun to a family member or friend.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Chris Calabrese had been concerned with other background check bills because they did not explicitly prevent the government from keeping records that later could be used in a national gun registry. Though the legal language has not been finalized, he told me, what he has seen was "very clear" in stipulating that gun dealers would be responsible for record keeping. The bill would prohibit the federal government from keeping records.
When Toomey and Manchin announced the deal, the NRA reacted by sending out a letter from Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, that called the compromise "misguided." And: "As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools."
I like the NRA's emphasis on passing only laws that work. Cox's claim, however, is difficult to believe, considering that the government denied 1.8 million applications between 1994 and 2008.
"I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control," quoth Toomey. His effort, after all, is designed to make existing laws work as they should.
Voters elect senators to get things done. Toomey's actions provided a needed contrast to the efforts of a GOP rump that had threatened to use Senate rules to thwart an up-or-down vote on Senate gun bills. That effort tanked when 16 Republicans joined all but two Democrats to move forward.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also stepped up to the plate when he signed up to be a co-sponsor of Manchin-Toomey despite his support for "universal background checks." His approach was bound to fail, for good reason.
Gun owner Dan Baum, author of "Gun Guys: A Road Trip," nailed the problem with gun control advocates when he debated New York Times columnist Joe Nocera on April 7. Baum told Nocera that many gun owners are "perfectly fine" with universal background checks, as long as the plan "doesn't lead to a database and de facto registration."
So why do gun owners resist Washington and do-gooders such as Nocera? "You don't understand guns," Baum said, "and you don't know gun guys, yet you want to make rules for things you don't understand for people you don't know."