There isn’t a special interest group on the planet that wouldn’t want to trade places with the National Rifle Association about now.
Last week’s defeat in the Senate of a compromise amendment to expand background checks on gun buyers wasn’t just a remarkable victory for the NRA — it also put to rest any notion that Congress can pass a gun bill without the NRA’s blessing.
Advocates for stricter gun control thought they had a winner in the amendment, and for good reason. It started out as a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
The two senators hold legitimate claims as Second Amendment advocates. Both are NRA members and gun owners. Both earned A ratings from the NRA for past support of gun rights.
The measure would have expanded background checks to include purchases made at gun shows and online, but gifts to family members and some other transactions would be exempt, answering some of the criticism that engulfs proposals for universal background checks.
The amendment also included several provisions that would have enhanced gun rights — enough concessions to earn an endorsement from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the 650,000 member gun rights group, sent an email to members, listing the gun rights advantages in the bill:
“Interstate sales of handguns, veteran gun rights restoration, travel with firearms protection, civil and criminal immunity lawsuit protection, and most important of all, the guarantee that people, including federal officers, will go to federal prison for up to 15 years if they attempt to use any gun sales records to set up a gun registry.”
Most Americans apparently would support even stronger restrictions. According to a CBS/New York Times poll earlier this year, 92 percent of Americans support universal background checks on gun buyers.
The Manchin-Toomey proposal even had some money behind it. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $12 million on ads aimed at key districts.
But bipartisan, popular and financial support for the measure wasn’t enough to overcome the NRA’s opposition. Anything supporters of the amendment could do, the NRA could do better.
The organization has plenty of money, and its ability to withhold or lend support at election time is reason enough for many lawmakers to pay attention.
It also excels at rallying the troops. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 1 in 5 gun owners had called, written, or emailed a public official.
That amount of clamoring is impossible for a politician to ignore.
The amendment would have closed some significant loopholes in the existing background check system and provide some important safeguards for gun rights.
The NRA’s point that expanded background checks won’t stop gun violence is valid. It wouldn’t have kept the Newtown, Conn., shooter from stealing his mother’s guns, for example.
But it could prevent some gun deaths by making it more difficult for bad guys to purchase firearms.
NRA’s contention that the amendment would start the nation on a path toward a universal gun ban seem particularly overblown.
Despite all the hand-wringing over a totalitarian takeover, it’s hard to look at last week’s Senate vote and make a case that our government is about to usurp the will of the people.
It can’t even overcome the will of a well organized minority.