Last week, Missoula City Council members Bryan von Lossberg, Marilyn Marler and Emily Bentley proposed an ordinance to require criminal background checks for all gun sales within city limits. Federal law already requires such checks for firearm sales by licensed dealers, but sales at guns shows—like the ones that happen at the Adams Center a couple times a year—aren't covered.
That's a bad loophole. Under current law, convicted felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill can't legally buy guns from licensed dealers, but they can go to gun shows and buy whatever they can afford. It's bad policy to exempt unlicensed sales from federal gun laws in this way, like requiring drivers to have licenses unless they get their cars from Craiglist. So I applaud the spirit behind the council's proposal, which is endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety and the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
I am concerned, though, that this action demanding gun sense does not demand enough policy sense. It's wise to insist that buyers at gun shows undergo the same background checks as buyers at licensed dealers, since they all end up with the same guns. But as a city ordinance, this proposal has the potential to bring about unintended consequences, without making it substantially harder for criminals and the mentally ill to buy firearms.
As Everytown and Moms Demand Action have pointed out, there are 50 licensed gun dealers in Missoula. No location within city limits is more than 10 miles from a dealer, so it's reasonable to believe that the people who buy guns at shows aren't doing it because they can't find a licensed seller. They're doing it because they're looking for firearms that aren't widely sold, or—more germane to this proposed ordinance—because they don't want to submit to background checks.
The people in this second category have already demonstrated their willingness to circumvent the law. Some are surely good citizens who could pass background checks but object to the process for ideological reasons. Some, though, are felons and other people who cannot legally buy guns from licensed dealers.
- photo by Chad Harder
The premise of this proposed ordinance is that such people have already proved willing to inconvenience themselves to buy guns by waiting for gun shows instead of visiting a licensed shop. Requiring background checks at gun shows within city limits might keep some of these people from buying guns, but all it guarantees is that they won't buy guns in Missoula.
The next Hamilton Gun Show is scheduled for Dec. 4-6 at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, approximately one hour's drive from City Hall. That's farther than 10 miles, and it will keep guns away from mentally ill felons who ride the bus. Otherwise, it will only require that people who want to buy firearms pass a criminal background check or know someone who has a car.
It will also incur as much howling as any other law that might prevent someone from buying a gun. The gun-control discussion has collapsed into binary opposition between people who oppose any new regulation and people who are desperate to pass something—anything—that might curb America's absurd level of gun violence.
I tend to fall into the second camp, and I support Lossberg et al.'s spirit. I support the efforts of Everytown and Moms Demand Action. I cannot support this ordinance, however, because I think it is likely to provoke opposition from gun show participants without making it meaningfully harder for felons to get guns.
I understand the impulse to fix this problem municipally. The NRA and other lobbyists against gun control have become impossibly powerful at the federal level, stymying a reform that, as of last year's Quinnipiac poll, 92 percent of gun owners support. In a better democracy, this law would be federal. Our city democracy is probably better than the one we've got in Washington, D.C., but it lacks the scope to make this ordinance meaningful.
It also has the potential to alienate an important partner in solving this problem: organizers of gun shows. If we're looking to close a loophole that Congress cannot, we will need sponsors, venue managers and vendors to insist on background checks themselves. It won't be a popular idea, at first. But it will be more popular than intervention from Missoula's high-spending, progressive-aligned city council.
I like the council's gesture on this issue and I agree with the position it reflects. I don't think it's smart policy, though, and smart policy is what we need now. If the last decade of gun violence and unproductive debate have proven anything, it's that the right position is not enough.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the superiority of trap to skeet at combatblog.net.