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The most broadly supported component of legislation aimed at curbing gun violence may not make it into the Senate's "best chance at legislative consensus" on firearms because, after all, this is Congress we're talking about.

Universal background checks — the idea that every gun sale regardless of seller or venue should require some verification of the buyer's legal ability to buy a gun — have consistently proven popular with Americans. In January, Pew Research found that 85 percent of respondents favored such checks — an even higher percentage than favored a ban on sales to the mentally ill. Support for the measure was equal across party lines: 85 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of independents, and 87 percent of Democrats expressed support for the measure.

With an estimated 40 percent of all gun sales still taking place without a background check, there seemed to be bipartisan leadership growing in the Senate. When Congress returned last week, The New York Times reported that Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma were "tantalizingly close" on a deal over records of private gun sales, despite Coburn's concerns that such a deal might lead to a kind of national gun registry. But now The Hill reports that time for such a deal is "running out" and that, despite direct calls from President Obama to Coburn as recently as yesterday, that the Oklahoma dealmaker may be balking in bad faith:

Schumer argues — and gun control groups agree — that records must be kept to ensure background checks are conducted before private transactions. Otherwise, any expansion of background checks would be unenforceable, they assert.

But Coburn worries that such a paperwork requirement could lead to a national gun registry, which gun rights groups staunchly oppose, according to Senate sources familiar with the talks.

Coburn's continued concerns over the "national gun registry" echo those of the National Rifle Association and its executive officer, Wayne LaPierre. Under current law, sales at gun stores require both a background check and that the dealer maintain record of the sale, though that record isn't transferred to the government. In 1993, President Clinton signed a bill banning the creation of a database of gun owners. Congress could override that law, of course, but it's not clear that Schumer's position is to do so. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois may yet emerge as the Republican to work with Schumer on making sure the bill gets proposed. One of Kirk's aides suggested to The Hill that the Senator is "still upbeat about forging a bipartisan agreement and could reach out to other GOP colleagues to build support for the emerging legislation."

If the Republican Senate resistance echoes the NRA, though, proponents of universal background checks have continued to rely on their own emotional new lobbying wing to generate even more public support: Mark Kelly has continued his very public effort with Gabby Giffords to be the new face of gun control. A measure to install checks on all private gun sales passed a key committee in the Colorado State Senate last night, thanks in no small part to an appearance yesterday by the former astronaut. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Kelly, who stressed that both he and Giffords own guns, said that such checks would be “a small price to pay” to prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are dangerous. …

“When dangerous people get guns we are all vulnerable; at church, conducting our daily business, and time after time, at schools and in classes,” Kelly said of Loughner, who legally purchased the weapon and ammunition used in the attack. “Our leaders should not look toward special interests and ideology but toward compromise.”

According to The Hill, the deadline for Schumer and Senate Republicans to reach a compromise may seep into next week. If a deal isn't reached by that point, the package, which may also include a renewal of the assault weapons ban or at least efforts to curb gun trafficking, will go to the Senate without the one item Americans think is most sensible and appropriate. Not representative democracy's finest moment.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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