Can we finally close the gun show loophole?

Whether it's the indelible horror of the massacre at Newtown, Conn., or the tone-deaf response of the National Rifle Association and its allies who have shown themselves so hysterical and paranoid on the subject of gun rights, the public's hunger for action on gun violence shows little sign of weakening.

Exactly what the task force led by Vice President Joe Biden will recommend shortly in terms of policy and legislation remains to be seen. But Mr. Biden did tip his hand Thursday about one idea whose time has come — universal background checks for gun purchases.


The vice president sees a consensus to approve such a system forming, and that's overdue. Even gun-loving conservatives have backed similar proposals in the past. As a Republican candidate for president, Sen. John McCain endorsed closing the so-called "gun-show loophole" that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks when they make purchases at such gatherings from sellers who are not full-time firearms dealers.

The NRA wasn't pleased by his position, but it didn't stop the influential group from endorsing him in the 2008 contest (despite declining to endorse some Republican presidential nominees in the past, including Sen. Bob Dole and President George H.W. Bush). Clearly, background checks are not wholly unpalatable to gun rights advocates — or at least they haven't been.


Why? Because a background check isn't really about controlling guns but about controlling convicted felons, drug addicts and the seriously mentally ill with violent tendencies, who shouldn't have access to a gun in the first place. These are the potential "bad guys with guns" that the NRA's Wayne LaPierre thinks are best addressed by "good guys with guns." But most rational people would agree that it's far better to keep the gun out of the bad guy's hands in the first place.

Some states, including Maryland, have closed this loophole on their own, but the majority have not. And studies have shown that gun shows are a major source of firearms for those who shouldn't be allowed to own them. Research by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found such shows to be the second leading source of illegally diverted guns, after straw purchases (where those who can't qualify to buy a gun have a third party do it for them). And a sting operation directed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg several years ago had little trouble finding dealers willing to sell guns at shows to people who warned them they couldn't pass a criminal background check.

Make no mistake, this is not the whole solution to gun violence, and it likely would have had little impact on the circumstances at Sandy Hook Elementary School or at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. But to a vast majority of Americans, it seems ludicrous to not require criminal background checks of all gun purchases. Polls have shown that even NRA members overwhelmingly support criminal background checks.

Closing the gun show loophole is only a start. It's also necessary to make the background checks meaningful and accurate, and in this, the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System supervised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation has often been found wanting. The databases will need to be made more thorough, accurate and up to date, a step that will likely require not only greater investment by Uncle Sam but grappling with some difficult privacy and state's rights issues, particularly in identifying chronic drug abusers and the dangerously mentally ill. Currently, at least 19 states don't even attempt to report such people to the system.

Such hurdles may be challenging but they are certainly not insurmountable. And whatever improvements are made, it has to be better than what exists today. Even so, studies have suggested that background checks, as flawed as they may be, already reduce the criminal trade in guns.

Liberals may not get all that excited by the prospect of improved background checks, but such reforms are likely to have a greater impact on the nation's gun violence than a ban on assault weapons, which are not what run-of-the-mill murderers tend to use. That's not to suggest that limiting access to certain types of weapons and high-capacity magazines isn't important, too, but a universal background check is just too sensible for Washington to refuse any longer.