As the national frenzy of anti-gun sentiment wanes, as it inevitably must, the calculus of legislative concession sets in. The more extreme gun-control proposals in Congress have failed, but there lingers in Congress and perhaps to a lesser degree in public opinion the perceived need to do something to restrict gun ownership. The major players agree that people with a record of criminal violence and the dangerously mentally ill should not have access to firearms. They agree that existing policy to those ends should remain in place and be strengthened, as the Toomey-Manchin compromise would do. Agreement ends there.
The Toomey-Manchin bill is meant to address so-called loopholes in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Under current law everyone in the business of selling guns must submit a customer’s personal information to NICS, a computerized system. In effect, every law-abiding American who buys a gun from a gun store has to get permission from the FBI first. Toomey-Manchin would extend that requirement to gun-show sales not conducted by gun-selling businesses, and it would sweeten the deal by easing the current restrictions on interstate transportation of firearms. It also eases current restrictions on inter-family transfers of firearms, as well as other concessions to gun owners.
As it stands, the Toomey-Manchin bill is the last gasp of congressional gun controllers who see the mob momentum for enacting the gun controllers’ long-cherished wish list fading. But as the public begins to face the reality of proposed gun-control measures, they are settling on what they knew all along. There is no defensible reason for the federal government to have a record of who owns guns in America and where they keep them. We should thoroughly check out everyone who wants to buy a gun to make sure they’re not violent felons or paranoid schizophrenics. But the idea of keeping those records permanently on everyone does not sit well with the public. And that’s exactly what the current system does, regardless of federal law’s prohibiting it. Every gun buyer fills out a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives paper form 4473 at the gun store then waits for it to be processed. In at least some states, such as California, a copy goes to the state Department of Justice. The dealer keeps a copy, and ATF agents can enter a gun dealer’s store at any time and demand to see his file of form 4473s. When the dealer goes out of business the records all must go to the ATF. This entire paper-record system, which has been operative for years, is entirely parallel to the electronic NICS system run by the FBI.
The Toomey-Manchin bill does not address the fact that criminals, who the system is designed to catch, do not participate in it. They get the tools of their trade largely from associates, family members, and by stealing them.
The bill includes several insistent proclamations that it prohibits a federal gun registry and would even prosecute and imprison anyone who violates this prohibition. But do the authors really expect us to believe that a gun-hostile administration’s Justice Department would prosecute one of their own? We already have a statutory prohibition on establishing a federal gun registry, but somehow the feds still have access to all those form 4473s one way or another.
Background checks is an idea that sounds perfectly reasonable on its face, but can be easily abused to form a gun-registration system. Judging from the difficulty congressional dealmakers are having in selling it, the public is beginning to understand that. In California this year assembly member Rob Bonta introduced a bill that would declare previously legal “assault weapons” to be illegal. It would have used a list of legally registered “assault weapons” to locate the guns and their owners and seize their newly illegal guns. The bill was killed as a strategic misstep by a freshman legislator who apparently didn’t yet know the gun prohibitionist’ strategy of incrementalism.
Ultimately, government collection and keeping of personal information about gun owners has no legitimacy in a free nation. And history has shown that gun registration leads to gun confiscation. The public’s growing understanding of these truths is the hurdle that the Toomey-Manchin compromise faces.
— Timothy Wheeler is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation. Opinions expressed here are his own.