Shameful day in the U.S. Senate

While last week's news was completely dominated by the tragic events at the Boston Marathon and its aftermath - the tracking down of the two prime suspects identified as the likely and alleged perpetrators. Nevertheless, we thought it was worth taking another look back at last week's other major news - the vote in the U.S. Senate last Wednesday on an amendment offered by two of its members, Joseph Manchin III of West Virginia, and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, that would have closed a loophole on background checks involving gun sales.

The outcome of the vote was and is a sad commentary on several levels. But let's try and start by emphasizing the positives, such as they are.

One, cheers for the two senators who from all accounts, did all they could to obtain passage of their amendment. In this era of political polarization where any kind of cooperation across party lines is rarer than catamount sitings in Vermont, it's refreshing to see that occasionally, members can still work together in a bipartisan fashion for the good of the country.

Second, all may not yet be lost. While the justified shouts of "Shame" that followed the Senate's vote last Wednesday probably won't change any "No" votes on this measure to "Yes," they will hopefully help fortify President Obama and his administration into not giving up on this issue. While they have a full plate ahead getting an immigration reform bill passed, along with a budget and a menu of ticklish foreign policy questions from Iran to North Korea, gun control will be a test of Mr. Obama's willingness to stick with the tough issues and come out in the end with something tangible, even if it's only a watered down, close to feel-good piece of legislation like the Manchin-Toomey amendment. As a second-term president, Mr. Obama doesn't have to worry about his re-election. He can look to burnishing his place in history. And moving the dials on the tortured issue of controlling access to guns - would help burnish that record.

When you look at it, Manchin-Toomey really didn't ask much of gun owners and those who want to be. As we've stated before, it's abundantly clear that the vast majority - make that virtually all - gun owners are law-abiding, responsible folks who were just as mortified and saddened by recent events in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., as anyone else. But it's hard to understand how a lobbying group like the National Rifle Association can speak in their name, wield the kind of clout it apparently does, and inject fear, paranoia and misrepresent legislation that in no way threatens the Second Amendment rights of Americans to the extent it does.

What would Manchin-Toomey actually have done?

All that would have changed was that background checks would have been required on all commercial sales of guns. Contrary to the overheated rhetoric offered by the gun lobbyists, it would not have set up a national gun registry - not that that would have been a bad idea, necessarily. It would have covered private sales of gun shows and sales over the Internet, two areas that are currently exempt from federal law.

But it specifically exempted transactions between family members from the background check requirement. And their amendment stopped short of language in a broader underlying Senate bill on guns, which would have mandated criminal background checks on all sales between private parties with limited exceptions. It would have expanded the checks to gun shows and Internet sales, but not required them of family members and friends giving or selling guns to each other.

That's pretty tame. The amendment that should have passed, but of course failed by a wider margin, was the one offered by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a politician with whom we have rarely agreed, but who nailed it on this issue. Her bill would have banned the sale of so-called semi-automatic assault weapons. That might have accomplished something, but it's clear the political center of gravity right now is not close to that.

Clearly, this is an issue that goes beyond the right to gun ownership, which was clearly reinforced by Manchin-Toomey. Their proposed legislation specifically underscored the right of people to keep and bear arms. What were their opponents afraid of?

The government becoming so oppressive we, the people, would have to rise up in revolt a la 1776?

A foreign occupying power invading the country and successfully defeating the U.S. military?

Or the specter of only kooks and criminals owning guns?

On that last point, which is frequently trotted out by the NRA as a reason to oppose anything that remotely smacks of greater oversight over gun ownership, it's worth asking the question - how do you test for mental illness to the extent that those who are potentially liable to commit acts of mass murder like Adam Lanza did in Newtown can be sorted out from those who aren't?

Talk about a police state mentality. Or, talk about the additional funding required for existing mental health programs, both public and private (not that increased funding for such programs would be a bad idea either).

If you can criticize Manchin-Toomey, it's because it didn't go far enough.


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