Polls indicate that 80% to 90% of Americans support expanded background checks for firearms sales, but on Wednesday such a plan could not get 60 votes in the United States Senate. In the White House Rose Garden, surrounded by families of children gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama called the Senate vote "shameful" and declared that this was "just Round 1" in the fight to get gun safety legislation adopted by Congress.
Somehow, it did not feel like Round 1; it felt like a knockout punch. If a limited proposal to require background checks at gun shows cannot hit the 60-vote threshold that would circumvent a filibuster in the Democrat-controlled Senate, it is a sure bet nothing close to that will see the light of day in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
The nation has just gone through two years of unusually awful slaughter that began with the near-fatal shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, continued on with the terrible attack at a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and climaxed with the mass murder of first-graders in Newtown, Conn. Yet, even after all of that and even with the support of an overwhelming majority of voters, it is clear that Congress will do nothing of significance to address the ongoing bloodbath that hits a different town every few months.
The National Rifle Assn., which in the 1990s actually supported a background check scheme, went all out to defeat the idea this time. Over the last decade, the NRA has become more radical on the issue of gun control, and most Republican elected officials have drifted to the extreme side with them. Just four GOP senators voted for the background check plan.
Four Democrats from predominantly rural states voted no -- Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana. All but Heitkamp are up for reelection next year. Even in the best circumstances, it's tough for a Democrat to win in a gun-loving place such as Montana or Alaska; with the NRA gunning for you, it is nearly impossible.
Pryor, Begich and Baucus did the political calculus. They could have voted for the background checks and maybe helped get it passed by the Senate. But the votes are not there to get the measure through the House, so they would have gotten themselves on the NRA hit list for nothing. If that led to their defeat in 2014, Republicans would almost certainly take over the Senate. What hope would there be for rational gun laws then?
So it is understandable why those rural Democratic senators voted they way they did, though it was hardly a proud display of political courage.
The day may yet come when members of Congress will feel the heat from the other side of the argument. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is the first firearms safety organization to have the financial resources to take on the NRA and make politicians pay a price for their spinelessness. But the $12-million TV ad buy Bloomberg made in recent days did not seem to accomplish much.