- - Wednesday, July 9, 2014

If Democrats regain a majority in the House and retain the Senate, the first order of business after a tragic shooting — any shooting will do — would be to enact strict gun control. Everyone knows it, and that’s a problem for Democratic senators trying to keep their seats in states where people aren’t afraid of guns.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid let Sen. Kay R. Hagan, a Democrat with an uphill re-election struggle in North Carolina, bring up her Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, which would actually make several useful changes in the law. It would modernize licensing for duck hunting and encourage the use of federal land for fishing, hunting and target shooting. It would even allow hunters who legally shoot a polar bear in Canada to bring the pelt back home to the United States.

It’s a symbolic gesture, but it would be a trophy that Sens. Hagan, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado could take home to say, “If you vote for me, your right to keep and bear arms will be secure.” But not quite.

In 2012, Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, was fighting for survival and pushed such legislation to shore up his pro-gun credentials. After he won re-election, Mr. Tester joined the liberals in his caucus to support President Obama’s actual gun-control agenda. Mr. Tester voted for the “background check” requirement that the federal government track sales of firearms between friends and family, inevitably creating a national registry. It came within a handful of votes of passage.

Several tough, realistic Republicans aren’t eager to give endangered Democrats an undeserved break and insist on adding language to reveal which senators actually believe in the Second Amendment and which only pose as believers. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas wants to add language to the bill enabling national recognition of concealed-carry permits. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is floating an amendment to allow D.C. residents to buy firearms without jumping through the city council’s hoops. Sen. Ted Cruz would authorize interstate sales of firearms.

Mr. Reid is having none of this. “Our success in moving this legislation,” he said, “will depend on the cooperation of all senators in putting aside political games, and petty disputes over amendments, to pass a bill that will benefit millions of Americans.” He wants his vulnerable members to get relief without casting any “tough votes” on amendments that would smoke out their real position on the Second Amendment.

When the bill comes up for a vote Thursday, senators won’t be allowed to freely amend the bill. If the measure clears the Senate, House Republicans must resist the temptation to pass the bill as is to put it on Mr. Obama’s desk. It’s so rare that a bill gets past Mr. Reid’s legislative blockade that it would be hard to scold Republicans for taking the poisoned bait.

Voters deserve to know where their representatives really stand on gun control, so House Speaker John A. Boehner should encourage the addition of genuine pro-gun amendments that would doom its chances for Senate concurrence. Better to allow a positive but mostly symbolic bill to die than to give Mrs. Hagan and her colleagues a trophy to fool their constituents.