Opposition to gun-control laws, the lawmakers say, is rooted in their understanding of the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment. These senators and representatives claim to be mind-readers. They can look back across the centuries, telling us precisely what the Founders meant by the Second Amendment and how they would vote on gun legislation in 2013.
This week our self-proclaiming constitution interpreters put their foot down on a bipartisan measure that would have increased the scope of background checks for gun purchasers. To most people it just makes sense to keep criminals and the mentally impaired from purchasing a firearm. Opinion polling shows that 9-in-10 Americans support toughened background-check laws.
The Senate had a chance Wednesday to vote on such a measure, a compromise amendment sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a pair of gun owners who have top ratings from the National Rifle Association.
The question before the Senate was whether or not to require background checks on all commercial gun sales.
Fifty-four members voted yes.
Forty-six voted no.
So, it passed, right? Felons and the mentally unstable will have a harder time buying a gun, right?
Opponents of the measure, our Second Amendment clairvoyants and strong adherents to a strict interpretation of the Constitution, employed a nifty little trick. They threatened (though never carried out) to stall the bill’s progress through filibuster. Such a threat meant that passing the amendment required more than a simple majority of senators. Without a super-majority of 60 yes votes, the Manchin-Toomey amendment died.
The Constitution is very specific when it comes to requiring more Senate votes than a simple majority. Removal of a president (or a vice president or a federal judge) from office requires yes votes from two-thirds of senators. Same goes for ratifying a treaty, overriding a presidential veto, passing a constitutional amendment and a handful of other significant legislative tasks.
Nothing in the Constitution calls for more than a simple majority on ordinary bills, such as the background-check amendment that was squashed Wednesday. A reading of the Constitution is clear: Supermajorities should be employed rarely and in extremely important matters. We guess constitutional clairvoyance is only employed when it is convenient.