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PD Editorial: It’s time to close the loophole on background checks

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

One year ago, on Feb. 26, 2020, a gunman killed five people at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee.

Six years ago, on Feb. 26, 2015, a man went door to door in Tryone, Missouri, shooting people. Seven died, and one was wounded but survived.

There’s nothing extraordinary about Feb. 26. Other dates turn up more than once on the list of 168 mass shootings in the United States over the past 20 years. There’s at least one date — Feb. 2, 2021 — with two mass shootings on the same day.

In a nation with an estimated 60 million more firearms than residents, gun violence is inevitable. But that’s no excuse for ignoring opportunities to prevent some of these tragedies, especially when it can be done without infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has been pushing for FBI background checks on all firearms purchases for nearly a decade. The objective is to keep firearms away from felons and people with serious mental health issues — that is, people who are prohibited by law from having guns.

Background checks already are required on sales handled by federally licensed gun dealers and in some states, including California, on every gun sale. And they work: Since the federal law was passed in 1994, background checks have blocked more than 3.5 million sales to restricted individuals.

But the federal law exempts private sales, including many sales at gun shows, and a survey found that 22% of sales between 2013 and 2015 were completed without a background check.

Thompson wants to close the loophole. Universal background checks have nearly universal support: More than 80% of Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — in a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center. Despite broad public support, Thompson has encountered stiff resistance on Capitol Hill, where most Republicans are aligned with the National Rifle Association.

Thompson, a gun owner, took up the issue shortly after the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He picked up a few Republican co-sponsors along the way but couldn’t get the bill out of the House until 2019, when Democrats regained control. He hit a wall in the Republican-controlled Senate, where there wasn’t a vote or even a committee hearing before the 116th Congress adjourned in January.

With Democrats now in control of the Senate and support from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden, Thompson plans to bring his bill back.

Background checks were first on Biden’s list of gun safety proposals in a statement marking this month’s third anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “We owe it to all those we’ve lost and to all those left behind to grieve to make a change,” he said. “The time to act is now.”

But the Senate remains an obstacle, with Republicans likely to filibuster.

“We’ve got a Democratic majority, and Schumer is very committed to making my bill law,” Thompson told the editorial board. “So I look forward to working with him to see if there’s a way we can bust that 60-vote problem that we have over there. But make no mistake, it’s going to be tough.”

No law will stop every shooting. But background checks will keep guns out of the hands of felons and others prohibited from having firearms, saving lives without stopping law-abiding citizens from buying firearms. Most Americans understand that, so why is this a partisan issue?

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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