Ruth Marcus: Fitting the Washington stereotype

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: April 20, 2013
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The way to stay sane in this city is never to expect too much.

So the soothing mantras of the capital involve admonitions about the art of the possible, the perfect and the good, the zen of baby steps.

Incremental, incremental, incremental.

Still, it is hard to remain calm in the face of the Senate's failure — its failure as the parents of children murdered in Newtown looked on from the gallery — to pass the most modest of measures to curb gun violence.

We tend to speak easily here of how Washington is broken and gridlocked. But those of us whose day jobs sit at the intersection of politics and public policy don't completely buy it. We retain ragged shreds of faith that Washington, despite its maddening imperfections, remains capable of rising to at least some occasions.

Except on Wednesday, it didn't, as the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 required to expand background checks for gun buyers. It is an indication of the perennially warped politics of guns that politicians can more safely support same-sex marriage than background checks.

The background-check measure proposed by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is — I'll refrain from the past tense, because Wednesday's loss was not the final chapter — so sensible, so pared down, that the stronger argument against it is that it failed to go far enough, not that it ran roughshod over the Second Amendment.

To review: Under current law, individuals who want to buy guns from licensed dealers must pass background checks. Manchin-Toomey would expand that requirement to in-state gun sales over the Internet, to gun shows and to other commercial transactions.

It would not apply to sales or transfers between family members and friends — notwithstanding the National Rifle Association's claim that it would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.”

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