How could 31 Senators vote against debating expanded background checks?

How could it be that even a single U.S. senator — no matter how opposed to gun control — could vote to hold up consideration of a proposal to require background checks for gun purchases? This is an idea not only embraced by something in the order of 91 percent of the American public but 85 percent of National Rifle Association members.

Yet, there it was. Thirty-one senators voted against allowing the Senate to debate the background check proposal this morning. That was a victory, of sorts, as some senators had threatened to filibuster the procedural vote. Still, it's stunning how so many extremists (mostly Republicans) could put scoring points with a small, narrow-minded constituency over the public interest and the lives of schoolchildren.

We won't claim that the bipartisan compromise on background checks worked out by Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is an ideal piece of legislation. It's a watered-down bill drawn from the least controversial idea contained in President Barack Obama's post-Newtown gun violence package.

It would extend background checks — already required of buyers who shop at traditional gun stores — to those who buy at gun shows or in response to private sellers who advertise online or elsewhere. It does not require background checks for sales made between "friends" and "neighbors" — unfortunately.

Of course, none of the opponents are objecting to the bill on grounds it doesn't go far enough (although that might make more sense). They are siding with the NRA, which is arguing that expanded background checks would not have prevented mass shootings in places like Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, Colo., nor will they "solve" violent crime. Perhaps not, but it's a huge leap of logic to suggest keeping guns out of the hands of felons and the severely mentally ill — which is the point of a background check in the first place — would not help prevent tragic shootings of all kinds.

What possible downside is there to undergoing a background check? Well, perhaps some small inconvenience, but what is that compared to saving lives? The existing background check system has already done much good by preventing an estimated 2 million illegal gun sales. Why not close this egregious loophole?

Making matters even more absurd, the Manchin-Toomey proposal actually has some sweeteners in it for the NRA crowd. It would allow gun dealers to sell across state lines and authorize gun owners with state-issued permits to carry concealed weapons to transport those weapons through states that don't allow them.

Meanwhile, outside the Capitol, family and friends of Newtown victims were holding signs pleading with the Senate to take a vote on the bill. Have the opponents no shame? Apparently, how they're scored by the NRA is more important to them than the kind of common sense restrictions backed by 9 out of 10 Americans and a whole lot of grieving families.

It's probably not even correct to call what's going to be debated in the Senate "gun control." It doesn't ban assault weapons, limit the size of ammunition magazines or create a national gun registry — as Mr. Obama had wanted. The failure of Congress to embrace these restrictions now leaves it up to states like Maryland, Connecticut, New York and Colorado to attempt to fill that large void.

In reality, background checks shouldn't be controversial at all. They obviously aren't with the public. It's only in the paranoid view of gun advocates that the Second Amendment is somehow compromised when records are checked to make sure a gun buyer isn't a terrorist or a career criminal or some seriously disturbed individual.

That's so common-sensical that opponents must hide behind such scrawny fig leaves as their criticisms of violent video games, call for teachers to come to school armed or observations that certain killers could have aced the background check. They grasp at such thin straws because their true agenda is to keep people constantly afraid of a "gun-grabbing government" — it's good for gun sales and for NRA membership drives.

That the background check bill survived Thursday's 68-31 test vote in no way assures it's soon to become the law of the land. Should it pass the Senate, it probably faces an even tougher test in the Republican-controlled House. But at least there's hope that Congress may yet carry out the will of the overwhelming majority of the American people who think requiring a background check of most gun buyers is no more, or less, than a good idea.

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