Sen. John McCain posed that question to fellow Republicans who vow to filibuster any bill mandating universal background checks on gun purchases. There are three answers to McCain and the first is this: If it's put to a vote, the bill will probably pass.
Any purchase made from a legal gun dealer is already subject to such a check. This country decided long ago to bar felons, fugitives and the mentally deranged from owning weapons. But under current law, if those dangerous characters purchase a gun from a nonlicensed outlet -- private dealer, gun show, website -- they are free to do so.
Background checks are no panacea, but they clearly help. According to the FBI, more than 700,000 potential gun buyers have been turned away over the last 10 years. And those statistics don't include the bad guys who were deterred from trying at all. That's why 9 out of 10 Americans support the idea. And that's why opponents are trying to hide behind a filibuster. They want to kill the bill without having to defend an indefensible vote.
The second answer to McCain's question is the National Rifle Association, which once supported background checks but now opposes them. The NRA is a highly motivated and well-financed organization that shrewdly maximizes the power of gun owners, and a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows how they do it.
Americans split pretty evenly when asked to choose between competing priorities: controlling guns or protecting gun rights. But those favoring gun rights are four times more likely than their opponents to contribute to an organization backing their position, and twice as likely to contact a public office holder. So it's far riskier for politicians to cross the gun lobby, even when that lobby takes positions far outside the mainstream.
There's a third and darker answer to McCain's question. At least some opponents of broader background checks fear their own government. They don't need guns to ward off home invaders or foreign enemies, they say, but federal agents. By this twisted reasoning, background checks would lead to a national register of gun owners, and a register would enable a malign government to confiscate weapons from law-abiding citizens.
That argument is completely detached from reality. No serious public official -- none -- favors a national gun registry, let alone a weapons ban. The American government can certainly be wasteful, maddening, frustrating. But evil? Tyrannical? Believing that is crazy. And profoundly un-democratic and unpatriotic.
President Obama was absolutely right when he said in Denver recently that "opponents of common-sense gun laws gave ginned up fears among responsible gun owners that have nothing to do with what's being proposed, not a thing to do with facts. It feeds into suspicions of government, that you need a gun to protect yourself from government." As the president put it, "The government is us. These officials were elected by you."
In the short run, the Republican Party might profit from opposing reasonable gun laws. The Senate, where Idaho has as many votes as California, magnifies the power of rural states. And as Chris Cillizza notes in the Washington Post, the political landscape next year favors conservatives. Of the 14 states where Republicans are defending Senate seats, only one -- Maine -- voted for Obama. By contrast, five incumbent Democrats are running in states won by Mitt Romney and several of them are shaky on the background check issue.
But in the long run, caving in to the paranoid wing of their party is a dead loser for the GOP. The leaders of the filibuster all come from safe red states: Texas, Utah, Kentucky. How will their position play in the purple places that actually determine national elections, like the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cleveland and Orlando? Or, especially, among the women voters who are crucial to Democratic victories?
The Republicans' favorability rating has hit rock-bottom: 19 percent among all voters in a recent Quinnipiac poll, and 15 percent among independents. Mitt Romney made a huge mistake last year when he urged undocumented workers to "self-deport," and opposing background checks poses the same threat. It's a position that can brand the party as drowning in self-delusion.
That's exactly why two Republican Senators, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, signed on to a compromise proposal this week expanding background checks. They know that if the hardliners win, their party suffers.
What are the supporters of a filibuster really afraid of? The good sense of the American people.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokiegmail.com.