Whenever talk turns to gun control in Congress, lawmakers feel compelled to mention their love of weaponry.
"I'm probably one of the few who have a pistol range in my backyard," Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Thursday, as he led a meeting of the Judiciary Committee on gun legislation.
"I have an AR-15," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, referring to the nation's best-known assault weapon.
"I'm not going to do anything illegally with it," Mr. Graham added.
There were no audible sighs of relief from the audience, but I am sure everybody was glad to have the reassurance.
People, do you think Congress is actually going to do anything about gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings? Judiciary is going to vote on two big proposals next week: a ban on assault weapons and an expansion of gun purchase background checks. If the Democrats stick together, the bills can pass on a party-line vote. But to go any further, they need Republican support, and there wasn't a whole lot of it in evidence this week.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chief sponsor of the assault weapons ban, seemed less than optimistic.
"I want to thank those who are with me," she said. "I don't know that I can convince those who are not, but I intend to keep trying."
She looked exhausted. At one point, she referred to Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut as "Sen. Delvanthal."
"Sen. Feinstein has been consistent. She is sincere, and she has the courage of her convictions and what more could you ask," Mr. Graham said.
This may have been an attempt at consolation. Perhaps he was only being incredibly patronizing by accident.
The public's interest in reducing gun violence may not have abated, but some of the lawmakers seem to be trotting backward. After Newtown, Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, said: "I don't know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle." He told CNN that he wanted to create a "dialogue that would bring a total change," adding, "and I mean a total change."
Mr. Manchin now says that anybody who took that to mean he was favoring some kind of ban on assault weapons totally misunderstood him.
"I said everything should be on the table," he explained in a phone interview. "Everything is on the table. I don't agree with the things on the table, but they still have the right to put them on."
On the plus side, the Judiciary Committee approved a modest bill raising the penalties for "straw purchasers" -- people who buy guns in order to give them to someone barred from making the purchase, like convicted felons or Mexican drug runners. One Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, voted for it. However, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas expressed concern that it would "make it a serious felony for an American Legion employee to negligently transfer a rifle or firearm to a veteran who, unknown to the transferer, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder."
Personally, I would rather not have American Legion employees negligently transferring guns to anybody. But then I am not trying to run for re-election in Texas without being primaried by the Tea Party.
The best hope for serious change involves fixing the background check law so that people who buy weapons at gun shows, online, in flea markets and other nonstore venues are included. Bipartisan negotiations seemed to fizzle last week, but Mr. Manchin, who was among those backing out, expressed confidence that something could still be worked out. And the assault weapons bill might have a little better chance if it was less complicated. (Ms. Feinstein's bill lists 157 makes and models of guns that are prohibited.) It might be easier to just go with the part banning magazine clips that allow shooters to fire off 15, 30, 100 or more bullets without reloading.
You may be wondering what conceivable argument gun lovers could have about hanging on to those monster bullet clips. For the answer, let us turn to -- yes! -- Lindsey Graham. The senator from South Carolina wanted to know what people were supposed to do with a lousy two-bullet shotgun "in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it's a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam's broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment."
Do you think Mr. Graham spends a lot of time watching old episodes of "Doomsday Preppers?" Does he worry about zombies? That definitely would require a lot of firepower.
We should forgive every lawmaker who will go on the record as saying they refuse to support gun control because of the zombie threat. Otherwise, it's pretty inexcusable.opinion_commentary
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.