Column: Why do Republicans love background checks for immigrants but not for gun buyers?

Published Apr. 16, 2013

Mandatory background checks are a terrible idea. They burden law-abiding citizens and don't catch criminals. The databases they rely on are riddled with errors. We don't even prosecute people who flunk the checks. That's why Republicans are against imposing such checks on gun buyers.

On the other hand, if you want to catch illegal immigrants, forget everything I just said. Running everybody through a database is a terrific idea. Republicans are all for it.

How did the GOP end up in this position? The story begins a couple of years ago, when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the Accountability Through Electronic Verification Act. Grassley explained that the bill would "require that all employers use the E-Verify program," a "Web-based tool that allows employers to verify the work eligibility of new employees," thereby "combating the hiring of illegal aliens."

Advocates of immigration control loved E-Verify. But libertarians hated it. They called it a "national identification and surveillance system" that would help the government "compile and monitor the personal information of every person seeking employment." They also protested that the system generated too many "false positives." All in all, the opponents concluded, an E-Verify mandate would impose a "flawed, costly system on law-abiding citizens."

These objections failed to sway Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio co-sponsored Grassley's bill, noting with pride that it would mandate E-Verify for "all employees recruited, referred, or hired." Since then, Rubio has repeatedly reaffirmed his support for mandatory E-Verify, insisting that it "protects the American worker."

While Rubio was busy making this case, a different law enforcement problem exploded. In Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut, three deranged gunmen murdered dozens of children and adults. The massacres were unrelated, but they provoked a national debate. Some senators proposed legislation to require background checks for anyone buying a firearm. Under the bill, buyers' names would be run through a database of people convicted of felonies or certified by a judge as dangerously mentally ill.

Did Rubio embrace this idea? Of course not. "Efforts to legislate limitations on gun ownership will only work on those of us who are already predisposed to obey the law," he said.

You don't need to be a native English speaker to recognize the hypocrisy. In the age-old dilemma between liberty and law enforcement, Rubio switches sides depending on the issue. He believes passionately that laws designed to catch lawbreakers don't work, that inconveniences to law-abiding citizens are intolerable, and that government databases are unacceptably dangerous — but only if you're buying a gun.

As long as guns and immigration were debated separately, Republicans were able to conceal this dance, borrowing libertarian arguments against gun control while ignoring them in the context of immigration. But now the two issues have converged on the Senate calendar. On ABC's This Week, Rubio was asked why anyone buying a firearm online or at a gun show shouldn't have to go through a criminal background check. He replied:

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"(Criminals) never follow the law. … (All) these laws that people are discussing will not effectively deal with that problem but will infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."

You could say the same about E-Verify. Yet Rubio brushed aside such skepticism. "We are going to get the toughest enforcement measures in the history of this country," he assured viewers. "We are going to have E-Verify, universally."

I don't mean to pick on Rubio. His selective, alternating appeals to liberty, cynicism and public order hardly distinguish him.

So let's drop the pretense. Most politicians standing in the way of background checks for firearms don't really believe in freedom or limited government. They simply care more about controlling immigration than they do about controlling guns.

© 2013 Slate