of background checks to clear a filibuster-proof threshold in the Senate last week has left the legislation in purgatory, with no clear path to revival but glimmers of hope for bringing the idea back to life in some way, shape or form.
After the Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks for firearm purchases died last Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tabled the gun debate
but took steps to make sure he can reopen it without much of a hassle. He and other Democrats who want to expand background checks have vowed to keep fighting until they succeed.
Despite their public display of optimism
, though, it's far from clear how Democrats can find 60 votes for a substantial expansion of background checks. They have 55 votes to expand mandatory FBI checks to firearms purchased at gun shows and Internet sales. The final five proved to be out of reach down the stretch on the Manchin-Toomey vote, despite proponents' efforts to include pro-gun sweeteners for senators who represent mostly rural states.
Leadership aides had no definitive progress to speak of on Monday. It remains unclear
if meaningful background check legislation can pass the Senate unless the National Rifle Association either supports it or agrees not to target senators who vote for it.
Of the four red state Democratic senators
who voted against the bill, three face reelection next year. Potential Republican targets for altered versions, as pro-reform aides see it, are Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Dean Heller (NV), Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Tom Coburn (OK).
Winning over any opponents of Manchin-Toomey after last week's vote will be a very heavy lift. For conservative senators who hold the balance of power, it's not clear that the political benefits of supporting a watered-down background checks bill outweigh the electoral benefits of protecting their perfect "A" rating from the NRA.
Manchin, the author of the background checks bill, acknowledged the gun industry group's clout when he said
his bill would have gotten 70 votes if the NRA did not score votes on it.
A separate dynamic that could potentially affect the politics of gun control is the Boston Marathon bombings and the fallout, in which the two suspects engaged in a firefight with police and gunned down an officer. It's not clear how the suspects obtained their firearms and police say
they did not have gun permits. The bombings have already shaken up the politics of immigration reform, but no one has made a connection to gun laws -- for now.
A fallback option, if all else fails, could be for Reid to bring up Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) even more modest measure to expand background checks to gun shows. That bill would let people print out or download to their smartphone an online pass affirming that they are not on the FBI's prohibited list, and bring that to the gun show. But the measure lacks the record-keeping requirements that law enforcement officials and gun safety advocates deem critical to implementing the policy and tracing weapons used to commit crimes.
The Coburn legislation is little more than a last-ditch option, if even that. Reid shot down Coburn's efforts to hold a vote on it prior to halting the gun debate, in an effort to pursue more substantial background checks. The upside to settling on that proposal is that it'll be an easier lift to 60 votes and give senators cover to say they achieved something on background checks.