Politico’s Mike Allen sat down for a Mayflower Hotel breakfast with Obama consigliere Dan Pfeiffer on Thursday. According to Allen, Pfeiffer “made it clear” that President Obama wants to sign a gun-control bill “and is willing to accept a lot of watering-down if that’s what it takes to win passage.” Allen asked if that included a bill with no requirement for the record-keeping of private gun sales. “What the president wants to sign is the strongest gun bill he can sign,” Pfeiffer replied.
Here are the Editors of National Review Online the same morning, on the background-check proposal that will soon come to the Senate floor:
Schumer’s bill would require record-keeping, presumably by the gun dealers and law-enforcement agencies that conduct the checks. (This too would be fleshed out in future regulations.) Such records could improve efforts to trace crime guns, and the absence of a required record could in some cases be good evidence of an illegal gun transfer. But Republicans argue, not entirely unreasonably, that a large-scale record of gun transactions constitutes a firearm registry, currently forbidden by federal law, even if it does not include within-family transfers and is maintained by private parties. Many gun owners don’t want to be in a permanent database for merely exercising a constitutional right, and fear that if the government ever were to seek — in an unlikely scenario — to confiscate guns, a registry would be a necessary prerequisite. Tom Coburn, the leading Republican in negotiations over the bill, has insisted that no records be kept. He seems unlikely to budge on this point.
No worthwhile option is available: With records the bill cannot pass, and without records the policy loses any potential it holds for reducing crime.
The Editors are right. The choice for gun-control advocates is clear. They can have a bill that is effective and dead in the water or one that is passable and useless. Of course the notions of “effective” and “useless” here are instrumental. A bill that required extensive record-keeping and background checks for private sales would likely “work” in reducing gun crime around the margins, but at the expense of the Bill of Rights. That’s why folks like Coburn won’t budge on the issue, and why a bill strong enough to do anything on gun crime (that is, strong enough to do violence to the Second Amendment) isn’t ever going to get to the president’s desk.
The good news for Second Amendment defenders, and especially for miserable, reluctant Second Amendment defenders like Harry Reid, is that the president of the United States just signaled that he doesn’t care if the bill that makes it to his desk is any good. To be sure, at the end of his expectations-lowering interview with Allen, Pfeiffer tacked on that “we have to make sure . . . that whatever we do is better than current law.” But that’s not exactly Leonidas at Thermopylae.
To his credit as a human being, President Obama has been affected deeply by the tragedy in Newtown, as you can tell any time you watch him talk about it. But in his emotional appeals for “this time it’s different” gun control, he made a fairly bad miscalculation, investing a big chunk of his second-term honeymoon — arguably the peak of any president’s power — in a promise that neither Washington nor America was ever really going to let him keep. Both the unwisdom and the infeasibility of the “assault-weapons ban” were such that it was ruled out almost immediately after it was suggested. As the post-Newtown spike in support for far-ranging gun restrictions regressed to the mean, the rest of the most contentious of the president’s score of proposals seem to be on their way out as well.
Indeed, the net effect of Newtown seems to be an increased enthusiasm for the expansion of gun rights. That is, the defensive posture struck in response to the emotion-fueled politics of the immediate post-Newtown environment has not only withstood the barrage of gun-restriction proposals but even prevailed against it. As one report notes, “This year, five states have passed seven laws that strengthen gun restrictions, while 10 states have passed 17 laws that weaken them.”
Hence the fighting-retreat feel of President Obama’s “shame on us if we’ve forgotten” entreaty at the White House a few days ago, and Pfeiffer’s Mayflower diplomacy hinting at a negotiated surrender. In the space of three months, the president has gone from promising to use the “full force” of his office to reshape federal gun laws to dispatching his senior adviser to ask the United States Senate for a fig leaf.
And here’s the thing: Republicans should give him the leaf.
In the weeks after Newtown, when it seemed that the restrictionists were going to have enough momentum to do something big, I argued that universal background checks (compared with things like bans on features) would be the least-bad option for gun-rights defenders. There would be ways to minimize the “gun registry” aspect of such a system, and even if it wouldn’t do much to prevent the Adam Lanzas of the world from getting their hands on guns, it would satisfy the “something must be done” crowd in a way that didn’t actually prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their rights.
I still think that’s true. And now that it seems clear that whatever background-check proposal emerges in the Senate will be weaker than I thought, I don’t see much reason for Second Amendment defenders to fret. It’s plausible that a watered-down version would still do some good in preventing criminals and the mentally ill from getting their hands on guns. It’s also plausible that other pieces of the bill — on mental health, especially — could do some incremental good in identifying and handling would-be Lanzas before they act.
All of this is to say that if the president will settle for a bill that satisfies both his need to get a symbolic win on this issue and Tom Coburn, the Second Amendment is probably safe for another day.
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.