If the U.S. Senate had any prestige left as a respected body of wise thinkers, that illusion was shattered Wednesday when it failed to make a historic choice. Faced with proposals on firearms that were a synthesis of decency and common sense and which posed no danger to the Second Amendment, a stubborn but decisive minority shrugged its collective shoulders.
Nothing can be done -- that, in effect, became the imperfect judgment of the senators. Now something may never be done. Because if the Senate can't agree on background checks for buyers of guns, the least controversial of requirements and the epitome of personal responsibility that everybody including the most conservative insist they believe in, then America is in a hopeless position.
The result was enough to bring a normally aloof President Barack Obama to justifiable anger and enough to make an advocate of gun control, Patricia Maisch, shout "Shame on you!" from the Senate gallery.
Shame is the precise word for it, a deep abiding shame that indelibly covered the reputations of naysayers too cowardly to do the right thing, or too addled in their ideological prejudices to even recognize the right thing. That call of shame should echo throughout the land.
Four months ago, 20 innocent children and six educators were shot down senselessly at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just the latest scene in the recurring national nightmare of gun violence. Dozens of relatives of the victims watched from a balcony as the usual excuses and lies impersonating arguments were offered up as a reason to do nothing for the sake of the National Rifle Association, owner of the Senate lock, stock and barrel.
Most Americans do not support this -- polls show an overwhelming public demand for expanded background checks -- and in fact most senators do not support it. But not enough lawmakers cared Wednesday about what most Americans thought.
The compromise bill on background checks worked out by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin was supported by a vote of 54 senators to 46. But that still left the bill six votes short of the 60 needed to pass by prior agreement between the parties (so much for majority rule). Other controversial proposals got more than 50 percent, but also failed. Only the proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines failed to muster a majority.
For shame. While the NRA exults in its power, it is inevitable that more mass murderers will take innocent lives with guns they should not have. But the Senate will do nothing and the price for its folly will be paid in other people's tears. For that you can thank the NRA and its devoted followers.