America's gun problem isn't just deranged shooters who murder schoolchildren or other helpless victims. It's the day-in, day-out scourge of gun violence that takes lives in ones and twos and threes. Since a shooter killed 26 children and adults in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, guns have been used to kill more than 2,500 people in the United States.
So it's fitting that Congress' first gun vote since the Newtown massacre focused on the gun trafficking that allows so many firearms to fall into the wrong hands. The measure, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and sent on to the full Senate, would toughen federal penalties on illegal gun purchases.
For an example of why this is important, look no further than the deaths of two volunteer firefighters in upstate New York, killed 10 days after the Newtown tragedy by a man who set his house on fire to lure first responders. The accused shooter was a convicted felon who couldn't legally buy a gun himself, so he went with a young neighbor to a gun store and picked out an AR-15 rifle and a shotgun. Prosecutors say the neighbor filled out the background check paperwork and lied by saying the guns were for her.
This is called a "straw purchase," and according to a federal study, it's one of the most common ways illegal guns get into the hands of people who shouldn't have them. Some straw purchases are small: A friend or neighbor buys one or two guns for a convicted criminal, or someone with a history of mental illness or domestic abuse, who would never get through a background check. Other purchases are larger: Gun traffickers recruit buyers with clean records to assemble arsenals to sell on the black market or transfer to Mexican drug cartels.
Critics argue that there's already a law against straw purchasing, so why pass another. They should talk to prosecutors, who have long complained that current law merely makes it a crime to lie on the form for the background check, which defense attorneys can dismiss as a minor "paperwork violation" and defendants can pass off as a simple mistake.
Interestingly, Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that as a former prosecutor, he sympathized with the need for a stronger law. But the senator voted against the bill, which explicitly makes straw purchases a federal crime and provides penalties of up to 25 years in prison.
The 11-7 vote, on what should be a relatively noncontroversial part of the effort to curb gun violence, signaled tougher sledding ahead for two important measures opposed by the powerful gun lobby.
One would reinstate a ban on assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, both of which have figured in numerous mass shootings. But the ban is considered a long shot.
The other measure - universal background checks on gun sales - faces brighter prospects. The idea has overwhelming public support, and even the National Rifle Association was for it before it was against it.
None of these measures would end the scourge of gun violence. But each can save many lives, and enacting them would be the best way to honor the needless deaths that occurred last year in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown - and that continue every day in places that will never become synonymous with tragedy.