By CHRIS POWELL
Democrats in Congress, including Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, are excited about the chance of enacting a federal law to require background checks for all gun purchases and transfers. Republicans in the Senate long have been the obstacle to this but they have lost their majority, and Democrats in the Senate might get the bill through if they stick together and get a few Republican votes. They should, since there is no good argument against background checks. Indeed, they are already required for most gun sales.
But the claim made by the Democrats in support of the legislation - that the lack of background checks is a big cause of gun violence - is ridiculous. Gun violence arises mainly from poverty and the trade in illegal drugs. Background checks will have at best a marginal effect on crime.
People who are educated and skilled enough to make an honest living seldom do it with guns. The real problem behind gun violence is the failure of poverty and education policy. Besides, so many guns are in civilian possession throughout the country - hundreds of millions - that guns will remain easily accessible from clandestine sources even if comprehensive background checks are enacted.
Guns are blamed for crime because politics doesn't permit the relevant policy failures to be audited. The "gun lobby" - a misnomer for what is neither the infamous National Rifle Association nor gun manufacturers but the political activism of millions of gun owners - may be strong, but it is nothing compared to the poverty and education lobbies. Far more people are part of the latter lobbies, making far more money. The latter lobbies intimidate politics out of auditing their failures and blame their failures on guns.
In pressing for background checks the Democrats are creating what should become an embarrassing irony for them. Background checks would disqualify people with criminal records from getting guns legally. But while Democrats pursue background checks in Washington, in Connecticut they are backing legislation to conceal all misdemeanor convictions after seven years and most felony convictions after 10 years. This records concealment would requalify for gun ownership many people of questionable character.
The claim for the "clean slate" bill is that the accessibility of criminal records prevents parolees from getting jobs and housing. Of course a criminal record is an impairment, but most people with records suffer far bigger impairments - their lack of education and job skills. This is especially so with men from racial minorities who went into the illegal drug trade, got violent, and were sent to prison, the men about whom advocates of the "clean slate" bill express most concern.
Many employers and landlords will take chances on applicants with criminal records if they can show rehabilitation and work skills. Indeed, even being a Nazi SS officer was no impairment for rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was hired by the U.S. Army just a few weeks after Germany's surrender in World War II. All was quickly forgiven. (A movie about von Braun was titled "I Aim at the Stars," whereupon the comedian Mort Sahl said it should have been subtitled "But I Sometimes Hit London.")
Concealing criminal records would be unfair to crime victims. It might endanger anyone with whom a former offender began a relationship. Government should not deny people's right to know what they may be getting into.
And while forgiveness is often in order, accountability always is. Records concealment would preclude both. People can't forgive what they don't know about.
The premise of the "clean slate" bill is that enforcing ignorance will solve the problems of parolees. It won't, for records concealment is no substitute for what government owes them. That is, help getting reestablished, like six months of menial employment, job training, basic housing, and medical insurance. If parolees are freed without that much help, concealing their criminal records will do them little good. For even without access to criminal records, any responsible employer or landlord will ask a parolee where he has been lately, and he won't get far without a verifiable explanation.
The "clean slate" bill is just liberal camouflage for walking away from the problem. Solving it would cost money.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.