Yesterday, S. 374, or the “Protecting Responsible Gun Sellers Act of 2013” as it has been inexplicably termed, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by ten votes to eight. If it were to become law, S. 374 would usher in what advocates refer to as a system of “universal background checks.” It would do a lot more, besides. As it stands in our ostensibly ghoulish status quo, a free American citizen may leave his guns with his unrelated roommate for more than seven days; he may lend a gun to a friend so that that friend is able to go shooting or hunting; he has more than 24 hours in which to report to the police if his guns are stolen; and he may even — shock, horror! — teach a friend to shoot on his own land. Most important, he may do all of these things without spending five years in prison in consequence. This, the Senate’s bill would change.
Until Senator Chuck Schumer crowbarred in his amendments at the eleventh hour, S. 374 was, as Kevin Drum characterized it, a pretty “meaningless law.” This pushed Drum to sigh that “post-Sandy Hook Washington DC . . . seems an awful lot like pre-Sandy Hook Washington DC.” Not now it doesn’t, for Chuck Schumer is on it. For good measure, Schumer added to his revisions a change in the transfer-fee details, telegraphing to watchful eyes the latitude that he would like to give to the state. The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011, on which Schumer’s bill is based, would have set fees at a flat $15; the amended bill leaves the fee structure at the mercy of later regulations to be determined by the attorney general. Passing established rules through Congress, as Obamacare’s endless instances of “the secretary shall” demonstrated, is passé. Allowing the executive branch to make the rules on a whim? Much more convenient.
S. 374 represents a direct blow to Americans’ right to keep and bear arms without excessive government interference. The bill holds that any “transfer” of a firearm must be conducted via a middleman (in practice, a law-enforcement officer or the holder of a Federal Firearms License) and that a transferee is obliged to submit to a check under the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. There are good-faith arguments in favor of and against this provision. But Chuck Schumer has narrowed the definition of “transfer” so strictly as to make his proposition absurd. If, for example, a gun owner leaves his home for more than seven days — leaving his firearms with his roommate, or gay partner, or landlord — he’ll be committing a felony that carries a five-year prison term. And while married couples are exempted from falling afoul of that provision, the family exemptions apply only to recorded “gifts” and not to “temporary transfers.” In order to avoid making felons of millions of couples, the government would, at the very least, need to spell out clearly what constitutes “gifting” a gun within a family and what constitutes a “temporary transfer,” thus regulating an area that has hitherto largely been left alone.
What else would change? Well, it would be illegal to lend a gun to a friend so that he can go shooting. Want to give your pistol to your neighbor so he can pop down to the range for a few hours but don’t have time to go with him? Sorry, better make sure you look good in orange. Need more than the allowed 24 hours to report a stolen gun to the authorities? What is this — Somalia? You’re a felon: Go straight to jail. Do not collect $200. Sharing guns between buddies on a hunting trip? Five years inside for you. But the real genius of Schumer’s bill is the permanence of its effects: Once you’ve proven yourself the sort of monster who might teach your neighbors’ children to shoot targets in the garden, you’re a felon, and you can’t own firearms without the explicit permission of the state.
S. 374 almost certainly has a long way to go. Some have indicated that waving it through the committee was simply a matter of process, a technical trick by which it could be indicated to the public that the Senate is serious about gun control. Others have noted that Harry Reid has promised not only that he won’t bring a bill that is unlikely to pass to a Senate vote but that he is keen to ensure that any proposal has a realistic chance of getting through the House. As the Washington Times reported yesterday, Schumer even conceded that his bill is “not the only way to do it.”
To these hesitations I say pish and posh! It is time, as Gabby Giffords keeps urging, to be “brave.” It is time to stand athwart the agenda of “special interests” — such as the Second Amendment, our free citizenry, the historical evidence, and basic common sense — and to raise our voices instead for the forgotten in America: the responsible gun sellers. For under the new law, they will inherit the earth. And all of the “transfer” business, too.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.