There's a tangibility to numbers that's hard to escape in the gun control debate. Twenty-six killed at Newtown. 3,300 dead from gun violence since. A (debatable) 40 percent of gun sales that currently require no background check. But this week, the most important number is 60: the number of senators needed to support a compromise bill on background checks in order for it to pass.
The compromise on background checks, proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican, is the most contentious element of the gun package. Or, rather, it will be — it isn't yet included in the package legislation, which currently includes a far more sweeping bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. The compromise, which would require background checks for sales at gun shows and for some private sales, will join measures increasing penalties for gun trafficking and funding for school safety.
If the compromise makes it into the package at all. America has come to terms with the current political reality that controversial legislation in the Senate requires 60 votes to pass. Without 60 votes, opponents of legislation can quietly "filibuster" a bill indefinitely. The new math is not even qualified in The Times article on the debate ("push the bill toward the 60 votes needed for final passage") or the one in the Washington Post (which says the assault weapons ban is "expected to fall far short of the 60 votes needed to ensure final passage") — it's just how it is. In the case of the background check compromise, a filibuster is all but certain; the NRA has pledged to include the vote on the filibuster in its grading system for elected officials. Anyone wanting an A+ grade from the NRA better ace the math.