WASHINGTON – A bipartisan compromise on background checks for gun purchases faces a rough road in the Senate thanks to stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association, but the proposal is prompting some prominent Western New York gun-rights advocates to hold their fire.
“I think there are a lot of people in the movement who don’t feel terribly concerned about reasonable background checks,” said Joseph P. Tartaro of Buffalo, president of the Second Amendment Foundation, the legal arm of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
The Citizens Committee, the nation’s second-largest gun owners group, this week endorsed the compromise engineered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would require background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Harold W. “Budd” Schroeder of Lancaster, chairman of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, said he is withholding judgment on the compromise until he learns more details, although he’s deeply suspicious of it because Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a longtime gun-control advocate, supports it.
But both he and Tartaro acknowledged that the compromise includes provisions that could benefit gun owners, such as a section giving gun dealers the right to sell handguns across state lines.
“If the rest of those [pro-gun] provisions come with it, that sounds like a good idea to me,” Schroeder said.
The comments from Tartaro and Schroeder, both staunch opponents of New York’s controversial SAFE Act gun-control law, hint at a possible middle ground on the federal gun bill despite its political problems in the Senate and the House, if it makes it that far.
With votes on the gun bill scheduled to take place today, Senate sources privately acknowledge that the Manchin-Toomey compromise is still several votes short of the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority needed for passage.
That’s because at least three rural-state Democrats – Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana – are viewed as likely no votes. Meanwhile, other than Toomey, only two Republicans – Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – have voiced support.
Working to win the support of Begich and Baucus along with other rural-state senators, Manchin and Toomey are considering adding a provision to their legislation that would exempt isolated communities from parts of the background check requirement, Senate aides said.
The NRA has vowed to target lawmakers who support the compromise. Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm, said in a letter to lawmakers that performing background checks at gun shows would “unfairly infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
Yet advocates of the bill are citing a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed 91 percent of respondents favor background checks for those who buy weapons at gun shows, as evidence that a vote for the Manchin-Toomey compromise is good politics.
“It is possible to uphold the Second Amendment while protecting innocent Americans from gun violence,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“The compromise background check proposal before the Senate – a measure crafted by Sens. Toomey, Manchin, Kirk and Schumer – achieves both goals.”
That’s just what the Citizens Committee and Tartaro think.
After December’s Newtown massacre, some gun-rights advocates realized that legislation including stronger background checks would likely be considered, and they began to wonder if they should “see if we can get something in return,” Tartaro said.
That’s just what happened in the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
First, the compromise waters down Schumer’s earlier proposal to require background checks for virtually all gun purchases. Transactions between relatives and friends would be exempted, but licensed gun dealers would perform background checks for sales at gun shows and for Internet gun transactions.
Second, gun-rights advocates have long feared that any expanded background check system would result in the creation of a nationwide firearms registry, which, gun owners fear, could be used in an eventual government “gun grab.” But the Manchin-Toomey compromise criminalizes the creation of such a registry.
“That’s very important,” Tartaro said. “One of the tenets of the pro-gun movement is that registration leads to confiscation.”
Besides allowing handgun sales across state lines for the first time, the compromise allows members of the military to buy guns in their home state or the state where they are stationed. Current law restricts those sales to the state where the soldier is stationed.
All of that prompted Tartaro to say: “There’s been a lot of things added to this bill. We’ve not seen the last version, but the intent of it is good.”
Schroeder said the background-check provisions in the Manchin-Toomey compromise are less onerous than those that gun buyers currently face in New York.
He said he was open to hearing more about the compromise once he heard that Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee, is supporting it, citing its expansion of gun rights and the 15-year criminal penalty attached to trying to establish a federal gun registry. “He’s a pretty shrewd guy,” Schroeder said. “If he feels that way, I could probably be convinced.”
Then again, Schroeder said he was still deeply skeptical of the bill because of the NRA’s opposition and because both Schumer and President Obama support it.
“The worry is that as soon as the ink on the bill starts to dry, the anti-gun people will say: This is a good first step,” Schroeder said. “And sometimes the first step ends up as a goose step. The slippery slope can get greased pretty quickly.”