WASHINGTON -- Getting a background check to buy a gun would be as easy as printing out an airplane boarding pass -- if Sen. Tom Coburn has his way.
Coburn's do-it-yourself background check plan -- which would expand the number of gun sales covered by background checks but also attempt to make them more user-friendly -- is one possible path forward for the gun safety legislation now stalled in the Senate. Last week, 41 Republicans and five Democrats voted to block a compromise background check proposal endorsed by many gun control groups but opposed by the National Rifle Association.
STORY: Senate freezes gun bill in hopes of new compromise
Gun control advocates are more skeptical of Coburn's plan, and Coburn himself admitted he doesn't know whether it has the votes to pass. But it appears his plan will get a vote: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised as much last week as he pulled the gun bill from the floor, saying he would bring it up again later. Coburn has one co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but the NRA has been silent on the proposal.
Here's how Coburn's plan would work: A gun buyer would log in to a free federal web portal and enter some personal information. If the buyer passes the background check, he or she would get a multi-digit key code, good for 30 days, to print out and take to a seller. That seller would use the same portal to confirm the authenticity of the background check.
The self-service system, the Oklahoma Republican said, would bypass the cost and record-keeping requirements required by the current proposal, which requires the involvement of a federally licensed firearm dealer for sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It's unclear how much it would cost to create a public-facing portal, but Congress has already authorized more than $1.2 billion to improve the system available to law enforcement and licensed dealers.
That dealer might not be convenient, and may charge a fee for the transfer service, Coburn said. And forcing everyone to go through a licensed dealer would simply push gun sales into the shadows. "If you make it easy for people to comply with the law, they'll do it," he said. "If I'm a gun owner, I want to know I'm not selling to someone who's on the list."
Sales to family members would still be exempted from the system, unless the seller has reason to believe the family member wouldn't pass. And states could pass laws making even more exceptions to cover friends, neighbors and co-workers.
Still, critics say Coburn's plan relies too much on voluntary compliance by private sellers.
"It's unworkable," said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, "and there would be no incentive for any private seller to do a background check under the legislation."
Another problem for gun control advocates: There would be no lasting record of the sale.
"When there's a crime committed, a police agency can go to a manufacturer and ask, 'Hey, where did this gun go?'" said Mark Kelly, who founded Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords. The manufacturer can point to a federally licensed dealer, who would have a paper record of the sale, "and then they can help them solve some crimes," Kelly said.
Coburn's proposal "is something we'll have to think long and hard about," Kelly said. "We could get to the point where this is so watered down that our organization will not support it."
It is not clear when Reid will again attempt to get the Senate to vote on gun legislation.