WASHINGTON — In a normal legislative battle, there comes a point when advocates have to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. When it comes to gun control, the calculus is different: You have to stop letting the adequate be the enemy of the incremental but significant.
That maddening fact is why the recent uproar over assault weapons is so dangerously misplaced. I'm all for limiting access to assault weapons, although the impact would be more symbolic than practical.
But reinstating the ban was never in the cards. The best that could be realistically hoped for was a Senate floor vote on an assault weapons amendment — a vote doomed to fail.
So pounding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for announcing that assault weapons would not be part of the proposal he brings to the Senate floor has the situation completely backward.
If Reid had included assault weapons, it would have doomed the larger effort, in particular the chance of expanding background checks for gun buyers. Requiring background checks for nearly all gun purchases is a change that is simultaneously more effective than banning assault weapons and more politically achievable.
Which is why the real worry of gun control advocates shouldn't be Reid's supposed perfidy in jettisoning assault weapons — it's whether the background check measure passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee is too strong even to make it to the Senate floor.
The behind-the-scenes Senate negotiating over background checks is being conducted by Democrats Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin and Republican Tom Coburn. They largely agree that the requirement for background checks should be expanded to cover most private sales — at gun shows, over the Internet, in other, nonfamily transactions. This would close a gaping loophole in the existing system.
The National Rifle Association argues that such checks won't deter felons and other ineligible purchasers determined to acquire guns. But the numbers belie that contention: More than 2 million would-be purchasers have been denied since the system was launched in 1994.
The real holdup in the negotiation over expanded background checks involves record keeping — specifically, whether private sellers should be subjected to the same requirement as licensed firearms dealers.