Now that they're facing Washington's first serious push for new gun violence prevention laws since the Columbine massacre, gun lobbyists are grasping at straws — as in "straw" purchases.
That's the slang for someone who legally buys a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, then sells it to someone whose criminal or mental health record prohibits them from making a legal purchase.
The National Rifle Association's official position favors prosecuting straw purchasers, but defends allowing sales at gun shows without background checks from private dealers.
In the 1990s, you may recall, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, supported universal background checks for all gun purchasers. "No exceptions," he said.
Now the organization is against background checks, calling the current push in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre "a thinly veiled national gun registration scheme."
As if that were a bad thing. It is ridiculous in my view to require licenses for cars but not for guns. Yet, while all states require licenses for cars, the federal government prohibits itself, at the NRA's urging, from keeping a national registry of gun owners.
Short of that, most of the country, including many gun owners in recent surveys, favor background checks as a reasonable requirement for people who want to purchase firearms.
Why wouldn't reasonable gun owners want to keep firearms out of the hands of people whose criminal or mental health records make them most likely to give gun owners a bad name?
Besides, even in today's fever pitch for gun violence prevention after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., most Americans have no appetite for actions that would confiscate the private property of law-abiding citizens, even when that private property is a firearm.
Yet the NRA these days barely sees any daylight between background checks and a national gun registry, which NRA advocates see as only a teeny, tiny baby step away from national gun confiscation actions.
There is no political tool more powerful than fear, it seems, whether it is fear of guns in the hands of the wrong people or fear of people who might be itching to take your guns.
Still that argument stands on such wobbly legs that gun lobbyists have to grasp at whatever straw they can find to prop it up.
Take, for example, an NRA ad, running online and in newspapers partly targeted to states where Democratic senators will be defending their seats next year. It uses a Justice Department memo it obtained to argue that the Obama administration believes its own gun control plans won't work unless the government seizes firearms and requires national registration.
In fact, the administration has not proposed or announced support for either of those drastic moves. Neither has gun legislation proposed on Capitol Hill. The document has all the appearances of a preliminary draft.
In fact, since 2004, again at the NRA's urging, information on firearms purchasers who have been approved by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System must be destroyed within 24 hours of dealers' notification of the approval. Before July 2004, it had been 90 days.
Of course, that shortened time period has been a tremendous convenience to corrupt firearm dealers seeking to avoid detection of their sales to prohibited buyers. Yet, that's fine with the NRA.
As a result, records retention has become a major sticking point in Senate negotiations on gun violence prevention, even though a law without a strong records provision would be largely toothless.
Sure, most criminals may get their weapons from the black market. But we have to start somewhere. Nobody is seriously talking about gun confiscation. Registration is a mere formality for those who have nothing to hide.
Right now it is simply too easy for teenagers to buy illegal guns on the street cheaply. We should not let the pursuit of impossibly perfect solutions be the enemy of our ability to do a lot of good.Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at email@example.comTwitter @cptime