A gentleman, out for a walk late at night, comes upon a drunk who is sprawled beneath a street lamp, clawing at the pavement.
“Sir, what are you doing?” asks the man.
“Looking for my keys,” the drunk replies.
“You dropped them around here, then?” the man asks.
“No,” says the drunk.
“Then why are you looking here?”
“Because,” the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”
This old anecdote sums up Democrats’ approach to preventing mass shootings for the last seven years or so. They don’t have answers. But when they become convinced that there’s something they can accomplish, they go right for it. It doesn’t bother them if their solution is completely irrelevant to the problem they’re supposedly solving.
In Monday’s Democratic presidential town hall, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., became the latest to crawl under that same streetlight in search of the keys. She promised that if elected president, after giving Congress 100 days to “get their act together” and move gun control legislation, she will “take executive action” that slightly expands the universe of gun sales covered by background checks.
It is worth mentioning here, just briefly, that Congress' job includes frustrating presidential ambitions like this one, just like its job includes preventing bad wars from being fought or border walls from being funded. How incredible that Democrats still haven’t learned, not even with Trump in office, that it’s unhealthy for presidents to circumvent Congress in such matters.
But the substantive question here is whether Harris’ proposal would have prevented any recent mass shootings. We have never been able to identify even a single mass shooting incident since the dawn of the instant check system in which the gun was acquired in a lawful private intrastate sale for which no background check was required. There are, on the other hand, multiple recent incidents in which the instant check system and the bureaucrats behind it botched things up and failed to stop a fateful gun sale that should never have taken place.
Harris’ proposal is actually quite modest. She would reinterpret federal law to require anyone who sells five guns or more per year to check buyers using the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as if they were a gun dealer.
How many more gun buyers would be checked as a result of this proposal? Very few. It is believed that only about 13% of gun sales are made outside the background check system (private, intrastate sales in the 31 states that don’t require checks). Of these, some small subset are sold by people who would run up against Harris’ five-gun rule.
If Harris or any other presidential hopeful wants to do something constructive on the issue of preventing gun sales to bad people, there are better options than this. First, prosecute every person who lies on their background check paperwork (she likes prosecuting people, after all). Second, fix the nightmare that is the existing instant check system, because it won’t help to run more checks through a broken system.
Working with Congress, either President Trump or his successor should spend what it takes to fix the record-keeping systems so that background checks stop failing. The shootings in Charleston, S.C., in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and at Virginia Tech — just three examples accounting for 68 deaths — could all have been prevented had someone bothered to do the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work of making the instant background check system work the way it was envisioned.