NEWTOWN — Victor Benson will never forget the man who walked into his shop and said, “I want a gun to shoot my son-in-law.”

Benson didn’t care whether the man was joking or not.

“You
just don’t walk in and say something like that,” said Benson, owner of
the Freedom Shoppe in New Milford for the last 17 years. “I memorized
what he looked like, and he’s never buying a gun from me.”

Such
encounters are rare for Benson, who knows 90 percent of his customers.
But when strangers do walk in, Benson is like any other gun store owner
who needs to know that his buyers are mentally fit and law-abiding, and
he said anything that closes gaps in the federal background check
process for gun shop purchases gets his vote.

The last thing any
merchant wants is to approve a sale to someone who shouldn’t have a gun
because that person’s name was never entered in the federal database.
That’s what happened in Texas on Nov. 5, when a convicted domestic
abuser whose records were never submitted to the background database was
able to buy guns and massacre 26 people in a church.

“I don’t want to be that guy who sells a gun to some nut,” Benson said.

Support
for better background checks from Benson and thousands of merchants
like him in Connecticut and across the country is one reason for all the
discussion last week about bipartisan bills to close gaps in the
National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Another reason:
It’s so rare for Democrats and the firearms industry to find common
ground that when they do, it almost seems too good to be true.

“I
think this is clearly a sweet spot for an agreement,” said Sen. Chris
Murphy, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring one of the bills with Texas GOP
Sen. John Cornyn. “The politics on this are changing.”

The
legislation has even made temporary allies out of Sandy Hook Promise,
the Newtown-based anti-gun violence nonprofit started by families who
lost loved ones in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, and the National
Shooting Sports Foundation, the Newtown-based trade association for the
firearms industry.

Each group praised the Senate bill’s approach
mixing support and enforcement to encourage agencies to fully report
criminal and mental health records.

The “Fix NICS” bill would
withhold funds from states and federal agencies that don’t fully report
records of people who are barred from owning guns, and calls for
priority in federal grantmaking for those that do comply. The bill would
also provide money and technical assistance to help standardize varying
definitions that now make reporting cumbersome.

The aim is to
prevent gun sales to thousands of people with convictions for violent
crimes and unstable mental health histories whose information has not
been entered into NICS.

That work has already been started by
NSSF, which has successfully lobbied 16 states to pass laws requiring
better reporting practices. As a result, 2.8 million mental health
records have been added to NICS in the last three years, said Jake
McGuigan, director of governmental relations and state affairs at NSSF.

“In
2012, Massachusetts had one record entered into NICS,” McGuigan said.
“Today Massachusetts has more than 14,000 records entered in the
system.”

At the same time, a bipartisan companion bill in the
House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Elizabeth
Esty, could be voted on as soon as Wednesday.

The House bill vote
might sound like something all sides could welcome, but Democratic
support was eroding on Friday because of fears that it would be packaged
with another GOP bill making it easier for people with permits to carry
concealed guns across state lines — a measure opposed by Democrats and
gun violence prevention advocates in Newtown.

Democrats argue that
the GOP bill would undo protections in states with more gun
restrictions, such as Connecticut and California, by forcing them to
honor permits from states with looser concealed-carry laws.

“There
is a lot of good work that we can and should be doing for gun violence
prevention, and this Fix NICS bill is something that would be very good
for America,” said Esty, who represents Newtown as part of the Fifth
Congressional District. “But Republicans want to take us 10 steps back
by passing an appalling, dangerous and terrible bill that will endanger
the American public.”

A House vote on Wednesday would fall on the
same day as a national vigil organized by a Newtown nonprofit to honor
the victims of gun violence in Washington, D.C.

The vote would
also come one week before the fifth remembrance of the 2012 massacre of
26 first-graders and educators at Sandy Hook School.

A Newtown
activist said prospects that the concealed carry bill will be packaged
with the Fix NICS bill made her skeptical about working with
Republicans.

“I am irate that the Fix NICS bill is being used to
advance the gun lobby’s No. 1 priority bill,” said Po Murray, chairman
of the Newtown Action Alliance, whose foundation is organizing the vigil
in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “Congress should be passing the
strongest gun violence prevention legislation they can.”


rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342