If President Barack Obama's expanded system of background checks for gun buyers had come to a Senate vote anytime before the filibuster became a routine legislative delaying tactic, it would have passed by a close but still comfortable margin of 54-46 and become the law of the land.
Federally licensed gun dealers carry out background checks now, but the proposed measure, worked out in bipartisan cooperation by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., would have extended the checks to gun shows and online sales to screen out those with criminal records or histories of mental health problems. But that and every other piece of gun legislation failed April 17.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, the filibuster has become almost automatic, meaning it takes 60 votes to bring a piece of legislation to vote. When that happens, all that is required for passage is a simple majority, as the Founding Fathers intended.
The 60-vote hurdle did prevent a really bad piece of legislation from passing. Brought up the same day, it would have required that states recognize other states' concealed-carry laws, no matter how lax the requirements for a permit. The concealed-carry legislation failed 57-43 -- and still fared better than the bill for expanded background check, which supported by 90 percent of the American people, according to polls.
The background-check bill is technically not dead. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada could bring it up at any time, but it would be a futile gesture -- unless there's another school massacre like Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who also killed his mother and himself. Or another Virginia Tech, site of the nation's deadliest shooting in 2007, when 32 people, mostly students, were murdered.
After each such shooting, there is a huge public outcry to tighten the laws governing guns and the people who have access to them.
What we have learned from Newtown and Virginia Tech is that there is a window of barely two months for Congress to act, when public support for legislative action is at its height and the lawmakers are more frightened of angry voters than of the gun lobby.
The kind of mass shooting that would impel Congress to move that fast -- faster than Newtown or Virginia Tech -- is frightening to contemplate. So between shootings, we don't think about it.