“We got nine tenths of the way with Coburn,” says one senior Democratic Senate staffer. But the Oklahoma Republican argued that conservatives simply wouldn’t support a bill that expanded record keeping, even one that merely extended the existing system for commercial sales to private sales. Schumer said gun control groups felt strongly that expanded background checks without record keeping would be meaningless. The two sides amicably agreed to test the support for those positions on both sides…

There are three possible outcomes to the test of wills. Bloomberg and his allies could successfully pressure Republicans to back down on paper records, likely giving Obama a win on two of the four measures he sought in the wake of Newtown (a bill increasing the penalties for gun trafficking bill is likely to pass, while an assault weapons ban and an expensive bill boosting school safety programs are expected to fail). Alternatively, if the Bloomberg effort fails to pressure conservatives to accept paper records for private sales, gun control advocates will have to decide whether to accept expanded background checks without paper records, or scrap them entirely.

The last outcome would be a failure all around, given the broad support for universal background checks, and the evidence that they could do something to diminish gun deaths. Bloomberg’s group has compiled records claiming that last year 6.6 million guns were sold privately without a background check. And a Bloomberg News article cites “a 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of inmates convicted of gun crimes found that 80 percent acquired the weapons through a private transfer.”