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News Opinion Editorial

In Senate gun control vote, tyranny of the minority

"We think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." — National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, May 27, 1999.

Let's get one thing straight about the Senate's failure Wednesday to support a too-modest extension of the national background check system for gun buyers to cover sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It has nothing to do with the constitutionality of the provision or of the creation of some phantom national gun registry. Closing glaring loopholes that allow as many as 40 percent of gun sales to occur outside the background check system is no infringement on Second Amendment rights. It wasn't when Mr. Pierre gave that testimony in 1999, and it isn't now. The senators who claim otherwise are lying to themselves, their constituents, or both.

What this was about was a power play by the NRA, pure and simple. It maintains its membership and its funding by inventing phantom threats to the right to gun ownership and defeating them. When confronted by a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, its concern is not to find an adequate response to keep Americans safe and prevent future such attacks. It's not even guarding against an over-reaction, if indeed it is possible to over-react to the slaughter of 20 elementary schoolchildren. The NRA's sole interest is in preventing anyone from drawing a connection between a mass killing and the weapons that made it possible.

It is too late for them to persuade the public that the easy, unregulated access to semi-automatic weapons has nothing to do with gun violence. Upward of 90 percent of the American public supports extending background checks to all gun sales. The NRA seemingly can't even persuade its own members; 85 percent of them want to expand background checks.

President Barack Obama vows that this fight is not over. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is promising to wage his own campaign against those who blocked this legislation. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a gunman outside a Tucson supermarket, wrote in a scathing New York Times op-ed that "if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress."

What the NRA is counting on is that its members care far more deeply about maintaining unfettered access to firearms of any kind, anywhere, at any time, for any purpose, than the vast majority of the American public does about enacting sensible restrictions to keep our families safe. Indeed, the passion has traditionally been on the side of the most strident gun rights absolutists, those who believe they need to amass an arsenal to ward off some imagined tyranny. We saw it in Annapolis this year, when thousands of people signed up to testify in opposition to Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control legislation.

Our legislators passed the bill anyway, putting into law a far more sweeping — and effective — set of gun control laws than the ones Congress shied away from this week. It was good governance and good politics. No matter how vocal the gun lobby was in the State House, it represents a tiny fraction of the public. This week, opponents of the bill said they decided not to mount a petition drive to seek a referendum on the legislation because they believe it will be struck down in court. The real reason is that they would lose, and badly, if the matter ever came before the voters.

They will have no better luck in the courts. Gun advocates have overplayed their legal hand since the Supreme Court's mistaken 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, which for the first time construed the Second Amendment to convey an individual right to bear arms. The majority opinion in that case clearly stated that the right is not absolute. The decision did not extend beyond the home, and it did not prohibit reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. Efforts to broaden its effect have failed. A challenge to Maryland's restrictions on the issuance of concealed-carry permits was just defeated in federal appellate court, and this week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a similar law in New York state. That means that not even four justices considered the case worth deciding.

The only group over which the NRA appears to have any influence is the U.S. Congress — specifically, the vast majority of Republicans and a handful of Democrats who so lust after political office that they would rather risk the deaths of more children than incur the wrath of the National Rifle Association. The American people cannot allow anyone so craven to remain in Congress.

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