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The Angriest Obama We've Ever Seen

After the Senate failed to expand gun background checks, the president flashes anger

Win McNamee/Getty Images News

The compromise on background checks died today in the Senate. And President Obama is as angry as we’ve ever seen him.

Late this afternoon, the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan proposal to extend background checks to all private gun sales, including those sold over the internet or at gun shows. Note the very intentional wording here: “failed to pass.” That’s not the same as “rejected” or “defeated.” The measure actually had support from 54 senators. But it takes 60 to break a filibuster. In other words, supporters had a very clear majority. They just didn't have what it takes to overcome obstruction by the minority.

And the supporters' majority was even bigger than it seems. If you assume, for sake of argument, each senator represents half of his or her state’s population, then senators voting for the bill represented about 194 million people, while the senators voting against the bill represented about 118 million people. That’s getting close to a two-thirds majority in favor of the measure.

In a legislative body that didn’t give sparsely populated rural states the same representation as densely populated urban ones—and in which a minority of representatives lacked the power to block debate indefinitely—those kinds of numbers would be more than enough to pass something like the background check proposal.

Of course, even this calculation understates the popular support background checks seem to have. According to the polls, as many as 90 percent of Americans support background checks. And with good reason. The point of background checks is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. And with the help of technology, running those checks should no longer be very difficult. Even the National Rifle Association once supported the idea.

The NRA doesn’t support the idea now, not even in the substantially weakened form that Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey devised in order to produce a (seemingly) viable proposal. And that, as much as the skewed composition and procedures of the Senate, helps explain why the compromise didn’t pass today. The NRA has a lot of money. And its supporters feel very passionately. They may constitute a minority, but the combination of money and intensity allows them to wield power like a majority.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And based on the Rose Garden appearance, nobody knows that better than Obama. He has never been one to flash emotion. But anybody who observed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook could tell that incident got to him personally. And in the Rose Garden appearance Wednesday afternoon, he could barely contain his contempt for the opponents who used dishonest attacks—and donations—to stoke opposition to the bill. 

“Even the NRA used to support expanded background checks,” Obama said. “But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.”

But Obama didn’t just call out opponents. He also called out allies, with reason. The filibuster isn’t their fault—that’s on Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate, and even Obama for failing to change the chamber’s voting rules. (That failure has hobbled the Obama presidency since day one.) But the failure to support gun legislation more intensely is very much a product of apathy.

The point is those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence will have to be as passionate, and as organized, and as vocal as those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe.  Ultimately, you outnumber those who argued the other way. But they're better organized. They're better financed. They’ve been at it longer.  And they make sure to stay focused on this one issue during election time. … So to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this.  And when necessary, you’ve got to send the right people to Washington.  And that requires strength, and it requires persistence. 

That last part was particularly important, since Obama was framing the gun issue, explicitly, as something that would come up in future elections. “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters,” Obama said. This may not be what all Democrats want to hear; the few who voted against the bill come from rural states where supporting gun control is risky. But Obama put down a clear marker. He’s going to keep fighting for this. The question is whether his supporters will be fighting with him.