Bipartisan Gun Negotiations Include Watered-Down Background Checks

Most Republicans oppose forcing gun sellers to make sure their customers are legit.

WASHINGTON — The bipartisan group of senators working on a gun control bill say their framework includes an expansion of criminal background checks — but the policy may be more modest than past proposals.

After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) would have expanded background checks to cover gun sales through internet advertisements and at gun shows. As it stands now, only licensed gun dealers have to do background checks, and private sellers don’t.

The Democrat leading this year’s bipartisan negotiations said he was hoping to include comprehensive background checks like Manchin and Toomey proposed, but that he would have to sacrifice other priorities in order to make it happen.

“We’re not going to put a piece of legislation the table that’s going to ban assault weapons, or we’re not going to pass comprehensive background checks,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Toomey, for his part, suggested the background check proposal the group is working on would look “different” from what he’d developed with Manchin. He described specifics over the background check proposal that’s being discussed as a “moving target.”

Murphy expressed hope that a narrow deal on guns would open the door to broader reform by showing Republicans that their willingness to engage on the issue is politically popular.

The Manchin-Toomey bill failed by six votes needed for passage when the Senate considered it in 2013. Four Republican senators voted for it at the time. Toomey and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) are the only Republicans who voted for the proposal who are still in the Senate.

Manchin has said he thinks the current gun talks, prompted by massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, are more serious than last time. But the proposals under consideration seem to be much weaker, largely due to hardened Republican opposition to any gun reforms.

In fact, many GOP lawmakers argue that no new laws would prevent people from committing gun crimes. Republicans have said their main goals are to boost school security, address the “mental health” issues that contribute to mass shootings and encourage states to enact “red flag” laws allowing police to temporarily confiscate weapons from dangerous people.

The background check change Murphy described Sunday involved putting juvenile records into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks system. The shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo were both 18-year-olds who legally purchased their assault rifles.

“Often, those juvenile records aren’t accessible when they walk into the gun store buying as an adult,” Murphy said. “So we’re having a conversation about that specific population, 18 to 21, and how to make sure that only the right people, law-abiding citizens, are getting their hands on weapons.”

Congress recently raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 but a similar change for buying firearms seems likely to be omitted from a Senate deal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) extended an informal deadline for the talks to the end of this week.

The House of Representatives approved a bill last month that would require a background check for almost any gun sale by requiring sellers to first transfer firearms to licensed dealers before completing a transaction. Such “universal” background checks aren’t even part of the conversation in the Senate, which is the chamber that will ultimately decide whether a bill gets passed and what it looks like.

Expanding background checks is one of the most popular policy options in front of Congress. In an Ipsos survey last month, 84% of voters, including 82% of Republicans, said they supported expanded background checks. It’s not hard to see why, since background checks are just a way of ensuring that gun sellers follow the law.

Federal law disallows firearm sales to certain people, including those who have been convicted of felonies and people who are subject to court orders related to domestic abuse. But if a prohibited person is buying the gun from an acquaintance, or a stranger on the internet, or a hobbyist at a gun show, then the seller doesn’t have to check their background.

It’s not clear if a Manchin-Toomey-style proposal is actually on the table.

“I don’t know that we’ll get exactly what Sen. Manchin and I developed some years ago, it’d probably be something different than that. Toomey said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But I just think it makes sense. We all agree that violent criminals and deranged, dangerously mentally ill people shouldn’t have firearms. So we need a mechanism to increase the likelihood that will identify such a person and prevent them from buying a gun legally.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told HuffPost on Monday that a background check expansion like Manchin-Toomey from 2013 “would be a heavy lift.”

He declined to be specific but said, “I think that what we’re trying to do is a more accurate and complete background check.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story omitted Sen. Chris Murphy’s full quote on assault weapons and background checks.

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