Bipartisan Background-Check Deal May Boost Gun Bill’s Chances

The framework developed by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey would broaden gun background-check requirements to include gun shows and online sales.

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Olivier Douliery / ABACA USA

Senator Patrick J. Toomey, speaks as Senator Joe Manchin looks on during a press conference to announce a bipartisan deal on background checks for gun shows and Internet sales at the Capitol on April 10, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

A bipartisan pair of senators announced an agreement Wednesday to expand background checks on commercial firearm sales, a compromise that could bolster the chances of a gun-control package passing the Senate later this month.

The framework developed by Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, would broaden background-check requirements to include gun shows and online sales. Private gun transfers, such as those between family members, would still not be subject to background checks.

The compromise brokered by Manchin and Toomey comes after a succession of bipartisan negotiators stumbled in their attempts to reach an agreement on background checks. Conservatives objected to provisions requiring additional record-keeping on gun buyers, which they fear could be a first step toward a national gun registry. The new bipartisan deal, unveiled at a Wednesday morning news conference on Capitol Hill, would require record-keeping on commercial sales but would not extend it by forcing citizens to keep records of private transactions.

Manchin and Toomey, both of whom have ‘A’ ratings from the NRA, cast the compromise as a set of “common sense” measures that would strengthen Second Amendment protections for law-abiding gun owners while shoring up loopholes through which criminals and the mentally ill can slip. “I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” Toomey said. “Background checks are not a cure-all by any means, but they can be helpful.”

The package will be introduced as the first amendment to the gun-control bill on which the Senate will hold a key procedural vote Thursday. As written, the legislation on the floor would require background checks on all firearm sales and transfers — a standard that cheers gun-control advocates but is anathema to Republicans. Swapping out the existing background-check portion of the bill for the more modest Toomey-Manchin compromise could pave the way for a broader coalition of senators to back the legislation if and when it comes up for a final vote later this month. Closing the gun-show loophole is an achievement that liberal senators, as well as the Obama Administration, can claim as a victory, while conservatives will be heartened that record-keeping requirements won’t be expanded to private transactions.

But the bill’s prospects remain murky. Toomey said his own vote would depend on how the legislation is tweaked during the amendment process. “I don’t predict how I’m going to vote on a measure that isn’t defined yet,” he said. The Pennsylvania conservative, who is up for re-election in 2016 in a state which already has strong background-check laws on the books, said he had been discussing the package with Republican colleagues. Some expressed interest, he said, while others flatly opposed any new restrictions on gun access. “I’m hopeful,” he said when asked about the package’s prospects, “but I think this is a fluid situation and it’s hard to predict.” While a bipartisan pair of representatives said they would introduce similar legislation in the House, any gun-control measures face a rocky road in the Republican-controlled lower chamber.

It may help that the NRA has not, as yet, come out in opposition to the agreement. On the heels of the announcement, the gun-rights group released a statement that decried the expansion of background checks and called the deal inadequate, but also suggested the Toomey-Manchin framework was preferable to the existing alternative. “Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the organization said. “While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘universal’ background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”