The most telling part of Wednesday’s Senate hearing about guns came at the start, in an exchange between Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association. Leahy wanted to know whether LaPierre would agree to an expansion of the current federal background check system to include gun purchases at gun shows from non-licensed dealers. LaPierre did appear to not want to answer the question. Here is the transcript:
LEAHY: Do you still, as you did in 1999, still support mandatory background checks at gun shows? Yes or no?
LAPIERRE: We supported the National Instant Check System on dealers. I — we were here when Senator Birch Bayh, one of your colleagues, held the hearings in terms of who would be a dealer and who would be required to have a license. If you did it for livelihood and profit, yes. If you were a hobbyist, then no.
LEAHY: Let’s make — let’s make it easier, though. I’m talking about gun shows. Should we have mandatory background checks at gun shows for sales of weapons?
LAPIERRE: If you’re a dealer, that’s already the law. If you’re talking…
LEAHY: That’s not my question. Please, Mr. LaPierre, I’m not trying to play games here. But, if you could, just answer my question.
LAPIERRE: Senator, I do not believe the way the law is working now, unfortunately, that it does any good to extend the law to private sales between hobbyists and collectors.
LEAHY: OK, so you do not support mandatory background checks in all instances at gun shows?
LAPIERRE: We do not, because the fact is, the law right now is a failure the way it’s working. The fact is, you have 76,000-some people that have been denied under the present law. Only 44 were prosecuted. You’re letting them go. They’re walking the streets.
Read the exchange again. When LaPierre eventually gets to the point of answering the question, after three attempts by Leahy, the head of the NRA has changed the subject. Instead of talking about non-dealer gun show sales, he starts talking about the failure of the federal government to prosecute criminals after they have been denied an opportunity to purchase a gun. Because of this, he says, the background system of dealers, which he still supports, failing, and therefore should not be extended. The argument is not entirely logical. (He admits the dealer checks are effective in preventing gun sales, even if criminals are not prosecuted for their attempts.) But it is textbook LaPierre.
And there is a good reason. As it now stands, the most likely new gun control legislation to pass Congress in the coming years would be an extension of the background check system to include gun show purchases from non-dealers, a relatively small category of gun sales. Many moderate Democrats support it, significant percentages of his own membership support it, and members of the NRA’s board of directors are willing to entertain the idea. “That at least is conceptually possible,” NRA President David Keene, who sat behind LaPierre at the hearing, told me just a few weeks ago, after mentioning one way of facilitating those checks by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “The ATF could have a booth there,” Keene told me about gun shows, explaining that non-dealers would just approach the booth to run a check on purchasers before a sale was completed.
More recently, Keene has backed away from that position. At a breakfast with reporters on Thursday, Keene also sidestepped questions about closing the loophole, whatever the true size, by arguing that the system was flawed—so there’s no point in expanding its jurisdiction. Keene said that the NRA does support expansion of the background check system in one area: to include those people who have been deemed dangerous due to mental health problems. He said that firearms aren’t “the root cause” of the gun violence problem: America’s flawed mental health system is. That pivot toward the discussion of mental health issues was a move pundits expected in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting that left 26 dead.
Before Congress Wednesday, LaPierre was not willing to give ground. His response is part of two-part larger strategy that the NRA has employed for nearly a decade: Cast all increased regulation of guns as a step on the slippery slope to the Second Amendment Armageddon, and attempt as much as possible to elevate the cultural and emotional issues at the heart of the gun control debate.
It has mostly been working, even as public concern over guns has been growing. As political sport, the debate over guns in recent months has been wonderful to watch. The NRA has poked and prodded at all the emotional buttons in this debate, outraging liberals, encouraging talk radio hosts, swelling its own membership and refocusing the debate on the terrain where they have the most power: The cultural division between those parts of the country where gun ownership is routine and those parts of the country where guns are a scourge.
By contrast, LaPierre has the least power on the issue of non-dealer gun show background checks. And that is why Leahy began his questioning there. And why LaPierre had so much trouble answering the question.
Additional reporting by Katy Steinmetz.