Sensible gun measure defeated by a minority in the US Senate

Once again a Senate filibuster allowed a minority to deny an up-or-down vote on a piece of legislation that had broad popular support — universal background checks on the sale of firearms. The only difference this time was that four Democrats joined 42 Republicans in blocking the measure. Only in the U.S. Senate do 46 votes outweigh 54.

Those 46 senators were resolute in their determination to block even the most modest of gun control measures. They ignored the entreaties of the president. They waved off polls that showed that between 85 and 90 percent of Americans support background checks. And those who bothered to meet with the parents of children slain in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School showed themselves to be unmoved by the tears of those parents.

These senators apparently answer to higher angels, those without wings but with NRA pins on their lapels and NRA checkbooks in their pockets.

Closing a loophole

This was not a piece of radical legislation that would have undercut the Second Amendment. It would have closed a loophole that allows countless firearms to exchange hands without the seller having any idea of whether the buyer is someone who is not permitted to buy a gun by virtue of criminal record or known mental defect. It allowed exceptions for family transactions.

The legislation was the product of compromise and was championed by two pro-gun senators, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa. Ironically, opponents of the proposal attacked it on the grounds that it could lead to the creation of a database of gun owners when the legislation specifically prohibited that, and included criminal penalties for violations. They also pointed out, correctly, that background checks would not have stopped any of the firearms transactions that led to the Sandy Hook massacre, but ignored that the semiautomatic pistols used in the 2007 Virginia Tech rampage were bought through the loophole.

This was a dramatic defeat for President Barack Obama and gun control advocates, especially following the high-profile campaign that involved families of victims from Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other mass shootings, including that in which former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded.

A different Washington

It also shows how Congress has shifted in recent decades against any kind of gun control. Where the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought legislation on mail-order gun sales, and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan resulted in passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, there will be no meaningful legislative reaction to the murder of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn.

The defeat of so tame a reaction to such a tragedy as expanding background checks for gun buyers may have come as a surprise. But there was nothing surprising about subsequent votes on renewing an assault weapons ban or limiting the size of ammunition magazines. Similar legislation was passed by Congress in 1994 and signed by President Bill Clinton. Yesterday’s attempt to resurrect the ban was defeated by a 60-40 vote, with more than a dozen Democrats joining the opposition.

It would seem safe to add guns and gun control to a growing list of issues on which Washington is so clearly divided that compromise will be virtually impossible until there are different people in Congress.