Bipartisan Deal Expands Background Checks, But Doesn’t Make Them ‘Universal’

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Toomey and Manchin this morning.
Toomey and Manchin this morning. Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Poll after poll has shown that about 9 out of 10 Americans support "universal" background checks — meaning, background checks on all gun sales. But it's looking increasingly unlikely that universal background checks will be part of the gun-control legislation that will soon be debated in Congress. That's because a bipartisan deal reached by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey yesterday and announced at a press conference this morning would only expand background checks to include gun shows and Internet sales, but not, say, purchases from friends, neighbors, co-workers, the dude you met at the shooting range, or the guy advertising his gun in the local classifieds. 

The question of how many gun sales would go unchecked under the Manchin-Toomey proposal is difficult to answer because, kind of surprisingly, there isn't really any good data on how guns are purchased in America. According to a 1994 survey, 29 percent of gun owners acquired their gun from a friend, acquaintance, or family member — methods that would not be covered by the Manchin-Toomey proposal. But the survey is nearly two decades old, has a sample size of only 251 respondents, and doesn't even include Internet purchases as an option because the Internet barely existed back then. Twenty-nine percent might be a good ballpark figure, but the real number is anyone's guess. 

Despite its limited scope, Democrats will coalesce around the Manchin-Toomey amendment because it's vastly more viable, politically, than a "universal" system that would likely fail to attract the requisite bipartisan support. Regardless of the polls, the GOP's interest in universal background checks just isn't there. And the NRA, for one, is continuing to dig in its heels against any expansion of background checks, as this new statement attests:

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. 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.

We'd hardly call the rejection of "universal" background checks "overwhelming." In fact, the exact opposite is true. But it was rejected by the right people.