Even after the stunning tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it’s nearly impossible for Congress to hold a constructive conversation over gun control, thanks to efforts by diehard opponents led by the National Rifle Association and its supporters.
Even a modest proposal like closing the gaping loophole on registration to limit the possibility that lethal firearms will fall into the wrong hands drew an intemperate display of contempt from Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA, as the Senate kicked off hearings on gun control this week.
His opposition to a proposed requirement for background checks on all firearms buyers, including at gun shows, was as unpersuasive as it was ineloquent: “Universal background checks, which sounds, whatever, ends up being a universal federal nightmare,” Mr. LaPierre told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The proposal is a key component of gun control legislation because 40 percent of purchases are made at gun shows and other venues that exempt buyers from the sensible requirement for a criminal background check that other buyers undergo at stores.
Back in the 1990s, Mr. LaPierre and the NRA were in favor of universal background checks, an idea that 80 percent of NRA members — and 90 percent of the American public — support today because it’s just common sense, but the NRA has hardened its opposition to any change since then.
“Allowing 40 percent of those acquiring guns to bypass checks is like allowing 40 percent of passengers to board a plane without going through security,” Baltimore Police Chief James Johnson testified at the hearing. “Would we do this?”
Of course not. We wouldn’t, and we don’t. So why should it be any different when it comes to firearms purchases? Why shouldn’t we do everything possible to keep guns away from criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill? “The best way to stop a bad guy from getting a gun in the first place is a good background check,” Chief Johnson told the senators.
To support his position, Mr. LaPierre even used misleading statistics, saying that “out of more than 76,000 firearms purchases supposedly denied by the federal instant check system, only 62 were referred for prosecution.”
We need better enforcement, he argued, not new laws. But under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., it turned out that the number the NRA chief used, 62, was only for Chicago. The actual statistics, according to Sen. Whitehouse: “In 2012 more than 11,700 defendants were charged with federal gun crimes.”
Mr. LaPierre’s testimony and his unjustifiable defense of a loophole in the law that has no merit exposed both the desperation of gun-control opponents and their unwillingness to engage in an honest and constructive discussion of an urgent issue on the national agenda.
A Congress that cannot respond to tragedies like Newtown and a long string of horrific shootings before that, stretching back to Columbine, is a Congress that is obviously helpless when it comes to confronting powerful special interests — even in the face of a national emergency.
Instead of listening to extremists like Mr. LaPierre, they should listen to the poignant voices of victims like former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was critically wounded in 2011 by a man with a history of mental problems. She pleaded with the senators to come up with answers:
“You must act,” she declared. “Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”