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Opinion | Buried in the gun deal is a significant advance

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It's easy to despair watching Congress debate gun legislation, especially given that even with reforms our country will continue to be saturated in guns. By some counts there are about 400 million guns in the United States. Legislating — particularly given the Senate filibuster — is maddeningly slow and difficult.

Combine that with the GOP's longtime unwillingness to consider real reform to the nation's gun laws, and it's surprising that Congress looks ready to pass a somewhat bipartisan gun bill at all.

Yet the bill that a bipartisan group of senators rolled out this week contains provisions that represent a serious advance of a longtime liberal goal — even if many of its other features could be described as weak or inadequate.

Much attention has focused on provisions such as investments in mental health and incentives for states to adopt red-flag laws restricting gun sales to potentially dangerous people. But the bill also contains improvements to the federal system for background checks and a crackdown on straw purchases, which, taken together, might prove significant.

If the bill becomes law — and that suddenly appears possible — we won't have universal background checks. But we might get closer than ever before.

For years, plugging holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has been a priority for gun-control advocates. Soon after the system went into effect in 1998, Democrats began lamenting the "gun show loophole."

That's a misnomer for what is really a private seller loophole, in which people buy guns from private sellers (sometimes at gun shows) who aren't licensed firearm dealers and therefore aren't required to conduct background checks.

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, the legislative effort that followed focused on a serious expansion of the background-check system. Despite major exemptions for sales between family, friends and co-workers, the bill failed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.

The new bill's fixes to the background-check system fall short of what was attempted back then. But they could still prove significant — particularly the provision that reclassifies many current gun sellers, requiring them to get a federal license.

Under current law, federally licensed firearms dealers must conduct background checks on would-be buyers. You must register as a licensed dealer if your "principle objective of livelihood and profit" is the selling of firearms.

This allows people to sell guns without a license if it isn't their main livelihood, creating a loophole for others to buy guns from them without a background check.

Jason Willick

counterpointWhy the gun deal won't trigger a conservative revolt

But the new bill would rewrite this so people who sell guns "predominantly" to earn a profit must register as licensed dealers. People who sell guns for the purpose of profiting — but not as their primary livelihood — would need a license.

This could mean people who sell guns on the internet or at gun shows with some regularity would need licenses, whereas before they did not, says Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady campaign to end gun violence.

This sets the stage to get "at the heart of the issue," Heyne told us, by "making sure that people profiting off selling weapons have to register as licensed dealers and have to conduct background checks."

The bill strengthens the federal background-check system in other ways. On buyers under 21, the legislation would require more review of juvenile and mental health records, and expand the time period to complete checks on some of them. This is aimed at addressing the preponderance of mass shootings committed by teens and young adults.

The proposal also would more directly address straw purchases. It would make it a federal crime to buy a gun for another person if you have reasonable cause to believe that person would fail a background check or use the gun in a crime, among other things.

And it might actually pass. The Senate has advanced the bill past its first procedural hurdle, with 10 Republicans voting for it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has endorsed it.

We admit we were originally pessimistic. We thought McConnell would likely kill the bill, unless he determined it was more in Senate Republicans' raw political interests to let it pass.

Which may be what's happening. Republicans are taking an unexpected beating from the House committee investigating Jan. 6 committee hearings, making them look radical and dangerous, and GOP Senate candidates in Georgia and Pennsylvania suddenly look like they could lose. So perhaps McConnell's calculus has shifted toward burnishing Senate Republicans' appeal to suburban swing voters.

Whatever the reason, it's good news that this bill might pass. To be clear, many holes would remain in the background-check system, such as patchy records on people's backgrounds and substandard record-sharing between states and the federal government. But passage might herald a shift that's been long in coming.

For many years, gun safety groups have pushed to reorient the focus of federal law to address the supply side on guns, as opposed to just who pulls the trigger. All these moves add up to a reorientation in that direction.

As Heyne told us: "Congress is trying to really ask the question, 'Where do these guns come from?'"

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