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Editorial: Senate deal on guns won't stop traffickers

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin walk in

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin walk in the Capito. (April 9, 2013) Credit: AP

A bipartisan deal reached yesterday to expand background checks for gun buyers makes it much more likely that the Senate will pass the first significant federal gun-control legislation in more than a decade.

But sadly, the legislation the Senate will begin debating today would accomplish much less to combat gun violence than it should.

The deal would expand background checks to gun shows and online gun sales, but not to personal sales between individuals. Overall, that's progress because currently only federally licensed gun dealers are required to complete the checks, yet they handle only 60 percent of gun sales. But the compromise diluted a preferred requirement for universal background checks.

Of the many reforms proposed since the Newtown shootings, expanding background checks would have the greatest impact on gun violence by making it more difficult for dangerous people to get firearms. By exempting personal sales between individuals from the requirement, however, the bill preserves a loophole that will give felons, people with dangerous mental illnesses and others who can't buy guns legally a way to obtain the firepower they want with no questions asked. Still, the bill would require records of gun-show and online sales to confirm checks were done, provide money for school security and stiffen penalties for gun trafficking.

Backing off universal checks may have been necessary for the bill to attract the support of enough Republicans and red-state Democrats to pass the Senate.

That's too bad. The bill had already been weakened when it was stripped of a ban on some assault weapons and of limits on the capacity of ammunition clips. Those measures to reduce firepower available to mass shooters were eliminated by Democrats based on the judgment that they could not pass. And some of the amendments that will be considered during the Senate debate could weaken reform even more. So if any gun legislation is approved by the Senate and then the House -- where passage is even less certain -- it will be a watered-down law that would do less than it could to save lives.

With 32,000 people killed by guns every year, 20 small children massacred, a member of Congress shot in the head, it's pitiful this is the most our elected officials can deliver. It's a testament to the grip that the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has on Congress that people fighting for reasonable gun restrictions would be right to consider passage of such diluted legislation a victory. It's terrifying to imagine how many innocents would have to die for Congress to take the tough steps it should to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

If it passes any bill at all, Congress will likely declare victory and move on to other issues. And when another mass shooting occurs, the gun lobby is sure to cite the new law as proof that regulating gun sales is an ineffective way to prevent gun violence.

The NRA makes sure that vulnerable members of Congress who support gun restrictions pay a price at the polls. The public, led by deep-pocketed advocates such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups such as former Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's Americans for Responsbile Solutions, should see to it that those who oppose reasonable restrictions pay a similar price.