There are encouraging signs that Congress might wrestle free from the grip of the National Rifle Association. A growing number of lawmakers from both parties appear open to limiting the size of ammunition magazines and to closing the loopholes that enable criminals to buy guns without a background check. These are sensible reforms that put public safety first without infringing on the rights of legal gun owners. Lawmakers should seize this chance to establish common ground and reduce the emotion of an issue where lives hang in the balance.
The New York Times reported last week that more members of Congress are looking at the size of high-capacity magazines and the requirement for background checks as areas where legislators on both sides of the gun-rights issue might find agreement. That would represent a step forward for public safety and a new route around the impasse over assault weapons that has prompted Congress to stall on gun control for the better part of a decade.
Military-style assault weapons have no legitimate purpose off the battlefields. They are made for killing humans as rapidly as possible, and Congress should reimpose and extend the ban that expired in 2004. But any comprehensive measure would also address the high-capacity magazines that contribute to mass killings. And no responsible gun owner could object to closing the loopholes that allow roughly 40 percent of all gun sales to qualify as private transactions and thus not require the buyer to submit to a federal background check.
Banning magazines that can hold dozens of rounds might be an inconvenience for those who shoot targets. But it could save lives if it forces inexperienced shooters in particular to fumble and change magazines instead of continuing to fire away at victims. A poll last month found that nearly two-thirds of adults nationwide favor a limit on the size of magazines. This would be a useful step — and safe politically. Congress should not wait.
Requiring near-universal background checks would help, too, both in keeping weapons from criminals and the mentally ill and in tracking sales to crack down on straw buyers. Having the right to possess a gun does not come with the constitutional protection to deceive authorities who are obligated and entrusted to enforce the law. A criminal could still find ways to avoid even a universal check. But the change would fortify a safety net that is currently full of holes. And closer scrutiny of gun purchases could dampen the trafficking in guns by straw buyers who are nothing but conduits for crime.
Restricting magazine sizes and requiring more background checks of gun buyers does not come close to raising Second Amendment issues, except to the most extreme in the gun rights lobby. A ban on assault weapons should be included in the mix, but the stalemate over that issue should not derail every other positive step. There is growing public support for limiting magazine sizes and additional background checks, and Congress should pursue those measures now even if an assault weapons ban remains elusive.