President Obama got the vote he demanded. On Wednesday, 54 senators, a clear majority, cast votes in favor of expanded background checks for gun buyers. Unfortunately, in too many instances, a majority isn’t sufficient in the U.S. Senate. So a modest gun-control measure favored by 90 percent of Americans, according to polls, went down to defeat, Rob Portman of Ohio, regrettably, part of the minority blocking the way.
The parts of a broad compromise are there, such as improving mental health programs, cracking down on gun trafficking and enhancing school safety. Yet the gun lobby and its allies wouldn’t accept something as sensible as extending background checks to gun shows and online sales, narrowing a gap that today allows 20 percent to 40 percent of gun sales to escape such scrutiny.
Opponents of the expansion engaged in the familiar exaggeration, distortion and falsehoods. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, insisted that “criminals do not submit to background checks now.” Actually, the FBI numbers show that three-quarters of the denials involve people convicted of a crime or fugitives from justice.
The cry went up about the expanded background checks leading to a national gun registry. Not so. One provision outlawed the creation of such a registry, punishable by 15 years in prison. This step reflected a willingness to accommodate a gun lobby that once favored instant background checks. Yet, that did little good. It soon turned, arguing the measure was too weak to be effective.
In the end, it didn’t matter that two senators with top ratings from the National Rifle Association, Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, found common ground on background checks. Even a majority wasn’t going to carry the day.