Early in 2016, President Obama is expected to act on his own to narrow the loophole that has allowed unlicensed firearms dealers to sell guns without conducting background checks. The reform is long overdue, even if it comes by executive order rather than legislative consensus. Obama should take the strongest action he believes his authority allows. His order is expected to redefine who is considered to be in the business of selling firearms and, in so doing, require more private gun sales to include the background checks now required of federally licensed firearms dealers.
Gun-rights activists have fought hard against this change. Adept at influencing lawmakers, they have succeeded in bottling it up in Congress and stopping it cold in a number of states, including Minnesota. This state's last attempt to tighten background checks came in 2013 and never even made it to the then-DFL-controlled House floor. Rep. Michael Paymar, who led that effort and retired soon after, said he is heartened to see Obama's action and hopes the president can make it stick.
That's a legitimate concern. Opponents already are talking of challenging the authority to make this change via executive order, and lawsuits have been threatened.
What activists seem to ignore is that the majority of Americans support at least some modest attempts to stop the mounting toll of bloodshed in a country awash in guns. There have been more than 200 mass shootings — defined as four or more killed — in the last decade, for an average of one every two and a half weeks.
This Christmas Day alone, counting all types of gun violence, 27 people were shot to death in the U.S. and another 63 were injured. That single-day toll exceeds the number of gun homicides in all of 2015 for Austria, Bermuda, Estonia, Hong Kong, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Slovenia — combined. According to the Gun Violence Archive, guns killed an average of 36 people every day of 2015 in this country. And yet, for gun-rights proponents, the answer is ever and always more guns, fewer restrictions. Mass shootings at schools? Arm teachers. At shopping malls? Arm shoppers. It's as if they believe life is an action movie, with unsuspecting citizens whipping out sidearms and dropping bad guys cold.
It's time to drop the Hollywood fantasies. For one thing, numbers show that more than half of mass shootings involve relationships gone awry — romantic breakups, family strife — and that nearly 60 percent of victims know their killers. And, to be fair to gun-rights activists, we also know that most such shootings are not committed with assault-style rifles. More than 70 percent are committed with handguns.
A background check won't stop every potential mass killer. But the checks already required of federally licensed firearms dealers at least provide some safeguards and prevent some impulse purchases by those who could not or would not submit to a check.
When licensed dealers sell at gun shows, buyers who lack proper identification for a background check are turned away. Paymar checked, going to a gun show to see for himself how easy it would be to purchase a weapon. Licensed dealers turned him away or suggested he return when he had ID. But what Paymar termed "rogue sellers" did not. With them, he could have purchased a gun on the spot.
Other states have succeeded where Minnesota failed. Eighteen, including New York and California, already have extended background checks to some or all private sales. Law-abiding gun owners in those states continue to be able to purchase weapons of their choice.
Paymar said that with reflection and time away from the Legislature, he has become convinced that universal background checks must be enacted at a federal level, to prevent would-be ineligible buyers from simply crossing a border to get a gun.
If 2016 is anything like 2015, it will bring more mass shootings, in homes, shopping malls, schools and workplaces. The problem must be tackled on many fronts, but the president's initiative is as good a place as any to start.