Gun Owners’ ‘List’ Slows Background-Check Bill in Senate

Fawn Johnson

If you expand background checks on gun purchases to private sales and Internet sales, what happens to “the list” of gun buyers? It could create a paper trail for every lawful gun owner in America.

That is the fear holding Republicans back from supporting legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that would expand background checks. Such a system would also result in a record of virtually all gun buyers, who under current law must fill out a form every time they pass a background check. Right now, those background checks only take place among federally licensed firearm dealers, who must keep the purchase forms on file.

It makes Republicans extremely nervous to think that gun buyers’ records could be gathered in a central government location. Yet it’s not entirely clear that the background-check system would work effectively as a law-enforcement tool without such a collection.

Asked on Tuesday whether a near-universal background-check system could avoid a national list of gun owners, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said, “I don’t think you can. A few weeks ago, I would have said differently, but I’ve studied it, and I don’t think so.”

If enough Republicans agree with him, the background-check legislation is toast in Congress. “There’s a chance it will get through the Senate, but not the House,” Grassley said.

Even the Senate will be a steep climb if the legislation requires that records of the gun purchases must be maintained, as Schumer’s bill currently would. Republicans will not sign off on anything that creates a list of gun buyers, but one congressional source said background checks would probably be acceptable provided no records are amassed for buyers deemed legitimate.

The background-check bill is considered by gun-control advocates to be the most important piece of legislation in the agenda laid out by President Obama after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Unlike the assault-weapons ban, it would cover all gun purchases. Importantly, it would impact the sale of handguns, the weapons involved in most U.S. gun deaths.

The background-check bill also is the only major proposal in Obama’s list of gun-control items that could have bipartisan support and actually pass. The assault-weapons ban is dead-on-arrival on the Senate floor, although it is expected to pass the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Schumer has been unsuccessful in courting a Republican cosponsor for the background-check bill, despite weeks of trying. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is still the main target to sign on to it, but he has made it abundantly clear that a national registry for gun owners is a deal breaker. It is not yet clear whether Coburn would back legislation in which some gun-purchase records are kept by individual sellers or, conversely, if Schumer would agree to legislation that doesn’t always require records of gun purchases.

Without Coburn’s support, Schumer’s version of the background-check bill was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday on a party-line vote. Schumer said that this was his “ideal” version, but he hastened to remind his colleagues that he is more than willing to alter it in order to attract Republican support.