A reasonable precaution

Opponents of a bill in the Oregon Legislature to require background checks for private gun sales trot out the usual argument that more gun control laws won't solve the problem of gun violence. Of course they won't entirely solve it. But that's not a reason to do nothing.

The bill, which was introduced last session but failed to make it out of committee, would expand Oregon's existing background check law to cover sales between private parties. The law now requires background checks by licensed dealers and sellers at gun shows. The only exemption under the proposed bill would be transfers of guns between family members.

The intent behind the law is to prevent convicted felons, some others with criminal backgrounds and those with a history of severe mental illness from owning firearms.

Foes testifying in a committee hearing in Salem last week argued that background checks rarely identify people who shouldn't have guns, and that criminals will find ways to get guns anyway. None of the recent mass shootings would have been prevented by background checks, they said.

It's true that nearly all applicants to buy a gun in Oregon pass the background check. It's also true that 1 percent failed the check in the past two years — about 2,000 each year.

That means 4,000 guns did not wind up in the hands of those who shouldn't have them. We'd call that 4,000 success stories.

There is no way to know how many of those who failed the background check might have used a gun to injure or kill another person. It's also impossible to know how many managed to get a gun some other way. Perhaps some of them bought a gun from a private seller or over the Internet. Which is why it makes sense to require background checks for those sales, too.

A recent poll of Oregon residents found 78 percent of respondents favor background checks for all gun sales.

Americans have a clear right to own guns, but that right is not absolute, with no rules. The courts have repeatedly upheld reasonable laws intended to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them.

No gun law can possibly prevent every misuse of a gun. But a law that keeps even one gun out of the hands of even one unstable or dangerous person who might shoot someone else with it is a law worth supporting.

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