The Search for a Gun Bill Poison Pill

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 8 2013 2:48 PM

The Search for a Gun Bill Poison Pill

That Tom Hamburger take on the NRA's successful lobbying has made the rounds for days, calcifying the "smart take" about what could happen. It's the Mark Begich information that really spooks supporters of a new gun bill.

Begich has signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill, drafted in consultation with the NRA, that would change the way mental illness is reported in the background check system — a measure that critics say could make firearms more easily available to the mentally ill.

The bill in question is S. 480, introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham in February at a confusing press conference where Graham repeated that we needed to "enforce the laws on the books." The problem, from the pro-control perspective, is that it sounds like Congress "doing something," but it rolls back regulations on certain kinds of gun buyers. It would make it easier for somebody who's "adjudicated mentally deficient" to argue that, hey, he's all better now, and buy a gun. And the Bloombergians have been here before, in 2007, when the NRA gave blessing to a post-Virginia tech bill only after it allowed states to unwind those mental health laws.

The White House is staying quiet about this. Yes, the president is giving weekly speeches about the need for a gun bill, but he's not getting into the weeds on what sort of add-on could kill the thing. This is because there might be a tweak that changes the standards, and allows some Democrats or Republicans to save face, without sinking the bill. It's exceedingly difficult to pass a bill, even pass it through a Democratic Senate, if the NRA announces it will "score" a vote against it. (You get a yearly letter grade congratulating you for your gun votes. If a vote's scored, and you go the wrong way, you tumble off the Dean's List.)

Ideally, Democrats would like to pass a watered-down bill -- yes, this is ideal for now -- that makes a few concessions to the gun lobby. If the NRA can come out of this crowing about victory, it makes the bill easier to get through the House. If Democrats break the NRA in the Senate, well, where does the bill go?

Here's another factor that could work for Democrats. Begich isn't alone; there'll be other Dems who want to cast a vote that gets them closer to the NRA. But there could be reforms that effectively advance the NRA's goals while on the surface appearing to advance the Democrats' goals. Liberals would need to count on "no" votes killing those reforms in the amendment stage, from some of the same conservatives who vote against even the most draconian budgets because they're not viewed as conservative enough.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.