Expanded background checks are more likely to pass, and they could have a much greater impact.
First, the bad news for fans of gun control: A new assault-weapons ban probably isn't going to happen. This has become abundantly clear in recent days as top Democrats, including Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Vice President Joe Biden, have downplayed the proposal's chances.
Far more likely, Leahy and others have indicated, is an expansion of background checks for gun buyers. Background checks are hugely popular: Though the National Rifle Association opposes them, nearly 90 percent of the public, and three-quarters of NRA members, are in favor. (By contrast, bans on assault weapons are supported by slimmer majorities.) That overwhelming public support has made background checks the most apparently politically feasible of the various proposals on the table.
This dynamic has impelled some on the left to see an assault-weapons ban as the most ambitious, and therefore desirable, goal, while background checks have been cast as the easy, incremental measure. But that's a mistake. Based on the numbers, expanding background checks would likely be a much farther-reaching reform with a greater potential impact on gun violence.
The reason is simple: 20 times more people are killed by handguns than rifles -- including assault rifles -- every year.
In the U.S. in 2011, there were 6,220 murders committed with handguns and 323 with rifles, according to the FBI. The government doesn't differentiate between regular and "assault" rifles (the definition of which is contested in any case), meaning the share of killings with assault rifles, however you define them, is surely an even smaller percentage. That means that even the most effective possible assault-weapons ban -- one that got every one of the weapons targeted off the streets -- would only affect a small portion of gun deaths. A reform that keeps handguns out of the wrong hands, by contrast, could have a big impact, even if it's only marginally effective.
How much impact is hard to say, in part because NRA-backed regulations have made it very hard to collect data on gun purchases. For example, all background-check records are required to be destroyed within 24 hours, making it impossible for law enforcement and researchers alike to track attempted purchases.
The way the system now works is this: Would-be gun buyers must undergo a background check if they purchase from a licensed firearm dealer, defined very loosely in the law as someone who makes a living selling guns. Collectors, hobbyists, and many other sellers are exempted; at gun shows, exempted sellers will set up tables with signs reading "No Background Check!" or "No Questions Asked!" There's even a "Craigslist for guns," the online marketplace Armslist.com.
Convicted felons, people who have been legally judged to be mentally ill, and those dishonorably discharged from the military are among the categories of people banned from buying guns. Advocates say the existing background check process isn't onerous -- it takes an average of seven minutes to complete, using either an online database or phone hotline. Is it effective? The denial rate last year was just 1.5 percent and has declined over the years, presumably as more illicit buyers are diverted to the unregulated part of the market. But 1.5 percent of 16 million -- the number of background checks conducted last year -- is still a fair amount of people who shouldn't have guns trying and failing to get them. And if more sellers had to conduct checks, advocates say, more guns would be kept out of the wrong hands.
Nonetheless, the constant refrain seems to be that "nothing is going to get done 'except maybe background checks,'" says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of the center-left think tank Third Way -- which is galling "when all of the gun-safety advocates agree that universal background checks would be the gold medal in terms of reducing gun crime and the assault weapons would be maybe bronze." Erickson Hatalsky added, "If we fix the background-check system and make it apply to all sales, criminals, terrorists, and the severely mentally ill won't be able to buy an assault weapon -- or any other gun. That's much more effective than giving the gun manufacturers another list of features they should avoid when amping up the lethality of their weapons."
If there's an upside to the way the debate has unfolded, it's this: By opposing the assault-weapons ban and supporting background checks, red-state lawmakers can position themselves as striking a middle ground and not giving gun-control advocates everything they want. If that helps background checks pass, gun-control fans should be pleased -- and not feel like they're settling for half a loaf.