By Dan Balz
Published: April 17, 2013

If there was ever a moment that symbolized the difference between the power of public opinion and the strength of a concerted minority, it came Wednesday when the Senate defeated a bipartisan measure to expand background checks on gun purchases.

By the time the vote took place, the outcome was expected. Nonetheless, the result was stunning, as was made clear by the angry reaction of President Obama, who had invested so much capital on getting gun legislation passed after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., only to see those efforts crushed on the legislation’s first real test.

Obama’s description — “a pretty shameful day for Washington” — captured the moment and summed up the frustrations that many ordinary Americans long have expressed about the capital, which is that the system appears tilted in favor of blocking action on important, if controversial, issues rather than enacting legislation to deal with them.

The proposal to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and on the Internet was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), two gun rights supporters. It had the support of more than a majority of senators — 54 ayes to 46 nays — and it had the firm backing of the White House.

More significant, perhaps, in a polarized country is that the idea of expanded background checks received overwhelming support across the political spectrum. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly all of them said they “strongly” favored the plan.

In the ways of Washington, that still wasn’t enough.

“If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “You could have 100 percent of those polled saying they wanted universal background checks and it would still be defeated. You can’t translate poll results into public policy.”

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