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The President on Guns: What Does it Mean?

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President Obama has broken his silence on the gun issue. His opinion piece in Sunday's Arizona Daily Star is a meticulously worded effort to define a middle ground on the issue on the president's terms, and then to invite those serious about finding solutions to join him in that middle, where ultimate agreement is possible. Although one gets the distinct impression that the president would prefer not to receive a positive reaction from gun control advocates like myself, I can't do him that favor.

The president's words were clearly crafted to draw fire from both sides in the American gun debate and no doubt they will. For my part, it is difficult to accept the president's apparent pride in having opened our national parks to concealed weapons, a policy that is opposed by every law enforcement group charged with the security of those parks. But beyond the "pox on both your houses" positioning, the president's call for consensus solutions to the plague of gun violence holds out great promise for progress to save lives.

For me, the most significant sentence in the article, and one curiously overlooked by the early commentators, is this: "If we're serious about keeping guns away from someone who's made up his mind to kill, then we can't allow a situation where a responsible seller denies him a weapon at one store, but he effortlessly buys the same gun someplace else." This is an unambiguous reference to a deadly anomaly in our gun laws. Under the Brady Law background check system, if a gun is purchased from a licensed dealer, there must be a background check, but in most states, if it is purchased from an unlicensed private seller, no check is required. Often these private sales occur at gun shows -- thus legislation has been introduced to close this "gun show loophole."

But the "gun show loophole" is really part of a larger loophole: in most states private sales do not require a background check, whether they occur at a gun show or not. This means that criminals and other legally prohibited gun buyers may be turned away at a licensed dealer, only to "effortlessly" purchase guns elsewhere. Significantly, the president did not mention gun shows in particular, but rather said "we can't allow" the broader private sale loophole to persist. The president clearly articulated the rationale for extending Brady background checks to virtually all gun sales. It is a reform the Brady Campaign has been advocating for many years.

The president did speak of other needed improvements in the background check system, including improving state reporting of the records of prohibited persons to the background check system. But he did not stop there. The president seems to recognize that, as important as it is to improve the records in the existing system, the problem of incomplete records pales in significance to the reality that, according to researchers, for about 40% of gun sales, there are no background checks at all. The president wrote that we must "make sure that criminals can't escape" the system of background checks. The private sale loophole is the widest, most inviting, avenue of escape.

As recent polling has shown, the proposal to extend Brady background checks to all gun sales is solidly in the middle of public opinion on this issue, receiving strong support even from gun owners. An astounding 86% of Americans, and 81% of gun owners, support universal checks.

Poll results like this demonstrate the mistake of viewing the gun issue as representing a great cultural divide between "gun-haters" and "gun-lovers." Framing the issue in this way is of great benefit to the National Rifle Association, allowing it to keep its followers in a constant state of fear and agitation that every sensible proposal is really a plot to weaken the resistance to ultimate gun confiscation. If president Obama is looking for consensus, he will find it. A policy of "no check, no gun, no excuses" has spectacular public support and will save countless lives.

Predictably, the NRA already has rebuffed the president's invitation to discuss the gun violence problem, with a typically obnoxious letter rejecting even the idea of a national dialogue on guns. Having collected millions in donations stoking the fear of an Obama gun ban, the NRA can't very well consort with such a committed "enemy" of the Second Amendment. The NRA has now fallen neatly into the president's category of those who "aren't interested in participating" in the "new discussion" because they "will predictably cast any discussion as the opening salvo in a wild-eyed scheme to take away everybody's guns." Perhaps the NRA's absence from the discussion will allow the real voice of gun owners to be heard.

At some point soon, the president must move beyond discussion to action and leadership. Far from being part of the solution, the NRA has shown, once again, that it is the problem. If President Obama truly wants a system that no longer allows countless violent criminals to "effortlessly" avoid background checks, eventually he will have no choice but to confront the gun lobby, and defeat it.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)