A year ago, in the days after 20 schoolchildren and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it seemed for a moment that something had changed in America’s long-running cultural debate on guns.
A new kind of national conversation — even some consensus — seemed possible.
But that was then. Today the voices on both sides of the gun-policy debate are back to being as shrill as ever.
Still, behind the heated rhetoric, there are areas of agreement. While polls show Americans almost evenly divided on the question of whether they want more gun control or stricter laws, they overwhelmingly support expanded gun-buyer background checks and overwhelmingly oppose bans on handguns.
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Those two strongly held positions suggest potential for crafting a grander bargain on guns, a new set of policies that would be premised on two complementary goals: protecting the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners and gun sellers while giving law enforcement better tools to deter and prosecute criminal access to guns.
What might such a grand bargain look like?
For starters, it would clearly set out the rights and responsibilities of gun retailers.
Advocates for stronger gun laws argue that there are a handful of bad-apple gun stores that, through incompetence, gross negligence and nefarious intent, lose track of tens or hundreds of guns they are supposed to maintain in inventory. That’s true.
Gun rights advocates point out that most retail firearm dealers are mom-and-pop businesses and that, on some occasions, they have been shut down by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for mere paperwork errors. That’s also true.
Why does the ATF shut down these small dealers? Because doing so is the only civil tool it has to encourage compliance with its rules.
The solution isn’t that complicated. In addition to maintaining the ATF’s ability to shut down the most egregious gun dealers, Congress should enact a law that would also allow the ATF to assess sliding fines or brief suspensions.
A provision that would do this is included in a bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
Another element of a grand bargain would involve redefining who is prohibited from owning a gun. Under federal law, all convicted felons, domestic abusers, adjudicated mentally ill people and certain other narrow categories of people are by default barred — typically for life — from purchasing, borrowing or possessing guns.
This federal ban is too expansive and not expansive enough. A law should be passed that makes people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and financial crimes automatically eligible by default to possess guns again after a period of years.
At the same time, certain dangerous criminals are slipping through the cracks of the federal laws. While 39 states prohibit gun possession or gun carrying by certain violent misdemeanants, federal law is silent.
We should update the federal law to bar gun possession by people sentenced to jail terms for violent misdemeanor crimes, such as stalking or assault, for a period of years.
A third component of better gun laws would include expanded background checks and expanded rights for those who have qualified for permits to carry concealed weapons.
Last April, in the wake of Newtown, 55 senators voted to support expanded gun background checks — and that same day, 57 senators voted for a provision to allow permit holders from one state to carry concealed guns into any other state.
Both measures failed because they did not meet the 60-vote threshold.
Gun rights advocates argue that a federal law to allow interstate concealed carry should be likened to the way states honor driver’s licenses from every other state.
On the other side, gun-control advocates argue that, because some states have vastly more stringent standards for issuing gun-carry permits, they should have the right to keep out people with permits from more lenient states.
Meanwhile, on background checks, polls consistently show that more than three-quarters of Americans, including clear majorities of gun owners, support expanding background checks.
But some gun owners worry about regulating transfers among family members, friends, co-workers and other people they know well.
So, let’s address all these concerns and come up with a system that requires checks for all gun sales but exempts transfers among family members, temporary transfers and a small set of other transactions.
And let’s devise a uniform set of intelligent standards, including training and clean criminal records, for a national concealed-carry system.
These three steps won’t, by themselves, end the gun debate. Even as we write this, the two of us disagree on aspects of gun laws. For example, one of us thinks a law banning 30-round magazines would have a significant public safety impact; the other thinks such a restriction is a diversionary tactic that would unnecessarily limit the rights of responsible gun owners.
But we agree that the three proposals we make here would enhance the rights of law-abiding gun owners and sellers and make it harder for violent criminals seeking easy access to guns.
Gun owners would enjoy fuller freedoms, and fewer people would die. So, what are we waiting for?