When I was younger, I spent countless hours hunched over a reloading vise, cranking out rifle and shotgun reloads for my days afield with gun in hand. Few experiences stirred my blood more than a trip to Herter’s in Waseca, Minn., where I’d spend my time admiring the unaffordable rifle actions and stocks that were poking out of barrels in a rear section of the store. My view of guns was closely associated with the romantic images found on the cover of Field and Stream magazine, and nobody in my small-town, Norman Rockwell world ever used one for anything more deadly than dispatching a deer or a pheasant.
However, there is another side to guns that thrives outside of my Rockwell painting. There are guns in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill. Gun-aided mayhem and murder are the malignant side of gun ownership, and I long ago emerged from that romantic painting to recognize that we have a serious problem with gun violence in America.
There was a time in this country when even leading voices in the National Rifle Association called for laws to keep dangerous people from purchasing guns. Federal legislation was passed in 1993 that mandated a federal background check that kicks in when a gun is purchased through a licensed dealer. Unfortunately, unless a state steps in to fill the void, no background check is done for guns purchased from a private seller at a gun show or via the Internet. That loophole makes no more sense than endangering public safety by eliminating the vision test for some drivers’ license applicants.
The Manchin-Toomey background check bill that our own Sen. Max Baucus helped to defeat last April was an attempt to close that loophole, but debates about the bill have taken place in a fog of extraneous issues.
Contrary to what its opponents may have you believe, the bill wouldn’t have banned any guns or ammunition, prohibited legal open-carry or concealed-carry of firearms, or kept uncle Joe from loaning his nephew a shotgun for a day of duck hunting — and it certainly didn’t set up a national gun registry. In fact, the bill laid out a stiff 15-year jail term for anyone who would attempt to create a registry. The bill was no more of a slippery slope to the limiting, banning or confiscation of guns than that mandatory driver’s license vision test is a step toward the elimination of automobiles. It’s a total disconnect.
Sen. Baucus says he voted against Manchin-Toomey because Montanans saw the legislation as an infringement on their Second Amendment rights. But the only opinion survey I’ve seen on the subject of expanding background checks indicates that the vast majority of Montanans support expansion. Furthermore, it’s difficult to understand how the couple of minutes it takes to fill out a form could be perceived as threatening to undermine our Second Amendment rights. That kind of hyperbolic nonsense has no place in a serious debate, and clear-thinking Montanans know better.
To be sure, those who lie on the Firearms Record Transaction form should be prosecuted, and background check legislation won’t stop all bad people from getting their hands on guns, but it’s likely to deter enough would-be purchasers to make a significant difference. No system is perfect, as is evidenced by the fact that your car can be stolen even if it’s locked and the keys are in your pocket. But try leaving the car door unlocked and the keys in the ignition the next time you’re in Seattle, and see if that makes you feel more or less safe. The absence of universal background checks is akin to that unlocked door with a key in the ignition. It’s an invitation to trouble.
We need Sen. Baucus to support Manchin-Toomey when it comes up again. I ask my fellow Montanans to join this gun owner in urging Sen. Baucus to join Sen. Jon Tester in his support for universal background checks.
(Bob Waters is a retired educator, U.S. Military Veteran, and a long-time Bozeman resident.)