President Obama is expected this week, possibly today, to make good on his promise to pursue saner gun-control policy in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 young school children and six educators. Reports suggest he will unveil the most comprehensive set of new gun-control proposals in decades. This long-awaited initiative merits vigorous support.
Unfortunately, Obama's attempt to seize this rare moment of opportunity for building a safer society will necessarily trigger a political battle with one of the strongest, most brazen political lobbies in Washington. In this case, it's a battle worth having, precisely because the issue of sensible gun control has become so needlessly polarized.
The NRA and its supporters wrongly contend, or pretend, that more sensible gun rules requiring a universal background check for gun purchases, and a usable, practical data bank to track criminal and mental health records, amounts to government over-reach. Such criticism is itself an over-reach, and that is the problem.
The proposed rule changes -- both those that would require congressional approval, and those that the president can implement by executive orders -- would be entirely sensible in their approach. They would do nothing to undermine 2nd Amendment rights as established by the conservative bloc of the U.S. Supreme in its pivotal 2010 ruling upholding a personal right to possess guns. That ruling explicitly upheld reasonable government rules on gun purchases and exclusions of gun-carry rights in sensitive places, such as schools, government offices and certain public venues.
The new rules would only make orderly and much-needed improvements in public safety through a reliable background check system for purchases of guns and ammunition, improved reporting requirements by gun vendors and state and local governments, and establishment of a comprehensive database to quickly link law enforcement agencies to criminals, weapons-related crimes and gun trafficking operations.
Obama's proposed reinstatement of the expired ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines is a practical proposal. Sportsmen, gun enthusiasts and homeowners have no real need for the sort of military-grade, rapid-fire capacity that deranged shooters obviously prefer for massacres in schools, theaters, shopping malls and places of worship. But while a new ban is important, it's not as important as a universal background check. Without it, an estimated 40 percent of gun purchases -- those between private sellers and buyers, mostly at public gun shows -- are made without background or mental health checks, thus creating the sewer of guns to criminals.
Equally important is building a better and more accessible database related to gun-records and related crimes. State governments, for example, are not now required to participate in the federal system for gun purchases, and many do not report their background check findings to federal agencies. More than two-thirds of the states fail to report most of their mental health checks, if they bother to check them at all. That must change.
Due to congressional restrictions on gun-related records and uncooperative state governments, current rules fall short in many other ways. Records of background checks, if they are reported by states, must be quickly disposed of, and not entered into a database. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is not allowed to make an unannounced check of a gun-store owner's inventory and sales data more than once year -- a clause that easily boosts illegal gun-trafficking.
The ATF&E is also forbidden, thanks again to Congress, to keep records in its database that quickly link gun serial numbers to purchasers. Congressional mandates have also made falsification of gun-sales records a misdemeanor. They have muddled up the legal language of allowable gun-trade business without a dealer's license. They have restricted the bureau's ability to share gun sales records with local and state law enforcement agencies. They have prohibited sharing of anything but aggregate data to the public. They have prevented use of tracing data in some cases involving gun dealers licenses. They have barred the Centers for Disease Control from compiling and studying the number of gun-related wounds and deaths as a public health issue. They have barred proposals to require trigger locks, ammunition-related technology, and various crime tracing techniques.
And to further muddle sane gun-related policy, Congress has barred appointment of a chief administrator to the ATF&E for six years.
All this must change to prevent guns from getting into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and to improve public safety. Most Americans, polls show, now agree with the president's agenda for sane gun control. But they will have to visibly support this cause to bring it about.