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Bessent: Background checks are the heart of gun reform

A women fires a handgun at the

A women fires a handgun at the "Get Some Guns & Ammo" shooting range in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Jan. 15, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The assault weapons ban is the flash point in the congressional debate over gun violence, but the wrangling over background checks is the battle to watch. Requiring the checks for all gun sales is the true heart of reform.

The howls of protest have been loud and long since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill that will come to the Senate floor next month will not include a ban on assault weapons. It’s outrageous there aren’t enough votes to pass it, but there aren’t. And including the ban in the bill would likely doom all reform to defeat. So Reid was wise to leave it out. Politics is the art of the possible, after all.

Fortunately the bill does include a provision requiring background checks for private gun sales. That’s critical. Four in 10 gun sales take place between private individuals -- at gun shows, over the kitchen table or maybe the internet. No background checks are required for those sales.

That’s a monster loophole that allows people who can’t legally buy guns, such as felons or the dangerously mentally ill, to purchase all the firepower they want. Closing it will do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands than anything else Congress is considering. Without the checks, a provision in the bill making gun trafficking by “straw buyers” a felony would be meaningless. Who needs a straw buyer if nobody’s checking?

But the background check provision in the bill right now likely won’t be the one the Senate ultimately votes on next month. That’s because Republicans who had been negotiating the provision with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) balked and bolted over a requirement for a paper trail of the checks in private sales.

Many Republicans, and likely some Democrats, fear those records would be a step toward a national gun registry, a prospect they abhor. But its hard to see how any law requiring the checks could be enforced without some record documenting they’re actually done.

While the Senate is recessed for the next two weeks, Schumer will work with Republicans to find a workable compromise that will win some Republican votes.

Without bipartisan support there’s no way to reach the 60 votes needed to pass legislation in the filibuster-obsessed Senate. And if universal background checks are rejected, the only meaningful reform left standing will be a few million dollars in federal grants for school security.

That would be a pitiful response to gun violence that snuffs out 32,000 lives a year, and a shameful failure for Congress.