Toomey and Manchin’s Slippery Slope
This is just a baby step — nothing to worry about, wingnuts.

Senators Joe Manchin and Patrick Toomey


Charles C. W. Cooke

We’ll be told condescendingly that, when you really think about it, these “loopholes” are a bigger problem than was the gun-show “loophole” because criminals aren’t stupid enough to try to buy their guns from gun shows but they do obtain them via private transfers elsewhere. Hyperventilating themselves onto the republic’s airwaves, someone will point out that it is downright absurd that it is illegal for a private individual to sell a gun without a background check inside a gun show but that it is fine to do so in the parking lot of the convention center. Ezra Klein will write a celebrated Wonkblog post on the topic. Others will ask why the NRA wants to make it easier for the mentally ill and the criminal to get hold of weapons, and they will insinuate that the country has been taken over by “special interests.”

And then, when there is another mass shooting — which, tragically but certainly, there will be — the usual process will be repeated: Democrats will call for the kitchen-sink gun bill that they’ve wanted all along, Republicans will oppose it; and, in order to allow some form of “compromise” to placate a public that is absurdly turned on by craven accommodations, a couple of ostensibly roguish senators will hold a press conference and announce that their plan will plug the remaining gaps too. “Nobody is trying to take away your guns,” one of them will say, with a lupine smile.

Our politicians will be able to announce that “something has been done,” the sine qua non of mindless politics. And what will they have done? They’ll have created a vast, murky, uncharted grey area, in which nobody is quite sure what is legal and what is not. Is it okay for me to lend my brother a rifle for more than a week? Not sure. Can I give the man down the street my gun if he spends half of his year in Florida? Not sure. Does advertising a weapon on the Internet but transferring it in person constitute a commercial transfer? Not sure. These rules will, if the past few years are anything to go by, be at the whim of so many “the secretary shall” clauses, and, inevitably, they will be differently enforced depending on where one lives in the country. This will suit many: Grey areas, as the Left knows full well, are utterly devastating to liberty because law-abiding people are scared of doing wrong. As a rule, if you aren’t sure and the price for being wrong is five years inside, you don’t do it.

Despite the considerable progress at the state level — and in the Supreme Court — federal gun laws are slowly moving in the wrong direction. Marginally expanding something that shouldn’t be there in the first place is no reform at all. I, too, am in favor of “standardizing” the system: I’d like to extend the “gun-show loophole” to all commercial transactions and I’d like to get the federal government out of all gun regulation bar the basic import/export and trafficking provisions that apply to all commercially available products. Of course it should be illegal for felons and the mentally ill to buy weapons; but that is not an argument for the government’s regulating the point of sale any more than its being illegal for you to cheat on your taxes is an argument for universal audits or its being illegal for you to beat your wife is an argument for putting Telescreens in every bedroom. It is high time that those serious about the right to keep and bear arms demanded that impediments to its exercise be treated as serious as are obstacles to other rights. Will they? We’ll see.

By all means back this bill if you believe that its consequences will be trivial. By all means note that “it could have been worse.” By all means console yourself that you are just “giving” the president something. But just remember that, tomorrow, it won’t be these changes they’re after; it’ll be the next bunch — and they have a very long list.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.