Last Sunday marked a tragic anniversary. It was three years ago that a lone gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. President Joe Biden marked the date issuing a statement not only grieving for the loss of 14 children and 3 adults, but promising swift action to end “our epidemic of gun violence.” First on his list of proposals: Require background checks on all gun sales. That the measure topped the president’s agenda was likely no accident: It is surely the most common-sensical, broadly supported and easily accomplished gun safety reform imaginable.
This month in Annapolis, the House of Delegates and Senate both voted to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of legislation that accomplishes exactly that, requiring a background check for every gun sale, including rifles and shotguns, which have long been exempt from this requirement. To sell any gun in Maryland, you will, as of mid-March, have to go to a licensed dealer who, for “a reasonable fee,” will help you complete an instant federal background check to determine whether you’re a convicted felon, a domestic abuser or have demonstrated a serious mental health condition that makes you a danger to yourself or others and disqualifies you from purchasing a firearm.
Considering the extraordinary harm that guns have caused, it’s shocking that it’s taken this long to close the background check loophole on the state level. It’s worse that it continues to exist on the federal. We don’t let just anyone drive a car or truck or motorcycle. Transfers of ownership require paperwork even if it’s a parent giving a vehicle to a child. The chief reason it’s taken this long to get universal background checks is that certain gun advocacy groups have found that it’s highly effective for their own fundraising purposes to react hysterically whenever government at the federal, state or local level even ponders any type of reform. And so to the NRA, this isn’t about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, it’s an “assault” on their Second Amendment rights that just happens to benefit criminals.
Still, there are some Democrats, particularly from more rural districts, who continue to be hesitant on matters involving guns. They see the passion that gun rights advocates have stirred in swing states not necessarily being matched by those who favor gun control. But simply requiring a background check is different. Polls show it’s consistently supported by all types of people — Republicans, Democrats and, yes, gun owners by overwhelming margins. And it’s been that way for years. A 2015 Public Policy Polling survey found just 14% of gun owners oppose criminal background checks on all firearms sales with 83% in favor. The problem isn’t that public opinion is not on the side of gun safety, it’s that Democrats tend to get fainthearted about it. But in case, they haven’t noticed, the NRA is in bankruptcy. It’s a paper tiger dogged by claims of corruption. Meanwhile, an uptick in shooting deaths, particularly in cities like Chicago, are what ought to be driving the gun safety agenda.
President Biden has shown interest in other gun control measures including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to stop giving immunity to gun manufacturers. He ought to add regulating untraceable “ghost guns,” assembled from parts, that are increasingly used to commit crimes in Baltimore and elsewhere. Nevertheless, universal background checks ought to be given the highest priority. There simply isn’t a good argument against them. Fees? Delays? Paperwork? These are reasons to curb cosmetology licensing, perhaps. Guns are too deadly to accept them as just another tool in the house and not a potential weapon of mass destruction, as so many shootings — from an Orlando nightclub in 2016 (handgun and rifle) to the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting in Annapolis in 2018 (shotgun) to an El Paso Walmart in 2019 (semi-automatic rifle) — have proven them to be.
It’s now up to President Biden and members of Congress who have witnessed the terrible toll of gun violence to explain why reasonable measures must be taken on a national level. The evidence is overwhelming. The public is supportive. What’s needed now is leadership.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.