Every member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, needs to be asked this question: Do you believe people should be able to buy guns in America without undergoing a background check designed to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting their hands on lethal weapons that can ultimately be used in crimes and mass killings?

In one sense, this is arguably the most important question at the heart of the gun debate. But it’s being obscured by the widespread media focus on the assault weapons ban. To read many accounts is to come away believing that the assault ban is the centerpiece of Obama’s package of initiatives — and that because the ban faces a tough road in Congress, Obama’s whole proposal is doooooomed.

But this is just flat out wrong. Obama’s package of proposals designed to beef up the background check system is in many ways more important than the assault weapons ban. A universal background check is the top priority of many gun control advocates. And the politics of background checks are considerably more favorable to Obama and Democrats then much coverage suggests.

Worse, the focus on the assault weapons ban is allowing members of Congress to dodge the very difficult political question of whether they favor fixing the background check system. For instance, Senator Lindsey Graham’s statement comes out against the proposed ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, but doesn’t say word boo about the universal background check, even though that is the lead proposal Obama unveiled.

There’s a lot of chatter to the effect that the House GOP leadership won’t allow a vote on any of Obama’s proposals. In the case of background checks, however, historical precedent suggests the contrary. In the wake of the Columbine massacre in the late 1990s, public pressure — mobilized by then-President Bill Clinton — forced the GOP controlled House and Senate to allow votes on requiring background checks for all gun show sales and other gun provisions. Though Republicans were hostile to the bill, they ultimately relented and allowed votes on it. It passed the Senate but failed in the House, but that doesn’t mean it would fail this time. The point is that public anger in the wake of horrific massacres has been known to break the GOP’s determination to block votes on gun regulations — particularly one as rational as improving the background check system.

A New York Times/CBS poll finds that 92 percent of Americans support background checks on all would be gun buyers. Eighty five percent of Republicans agree. So do 93 percent of gun households, and 85 percent of NRA households. You could not ask for a clearer case where the NRA and the “gun rights” brigade represents what can only be called an extreme fringe position. At some point, Republicans — and “pro gun” Democrats — will be challenged to oppose this common sense step that’s overwhelmingly supported by the American people.

The assault weapons ban appears important to Obama, but if he gets universal background checks plus a host of other measures, such as ones increasing criminal penalties on “straw purchasers” and banning high capacity magazines and armor piercing bullets, that could constitute a major achievement in its own right. Senators and members of Congress must not be allowed to dodge this: Do they support background checks into would be buyers of guns, or don’t they?

* How to improve the background check system: The Post editorial board lays out a clear explanation of how Obama’s proposals would accomplish this and why it should be a top priority for the country.

* Dems mock House GOP retreat: Politico reports that top House Republicans at a retreat are struggling to come to terms with just how unpopular the party has become, and are generally doing soul searching about the way forward. Meanwhile, the DCCC is out with a new Web video recapping Tea Party extremism on the debt ceiling and Sandy aid and the general GOP division it’s fomented.

Thought: Forcing a choice between gutting popular social programs on the one hand and destroying the economy on the other isn’t likely to help matters.

* The latest on filibuster reform: As Jonathan Bernstein notes, it really isn’t looking good, and liberal activists and outside groups really need to step up their game to pressure Senate Dems to act, lest this opportunity slip by for good.

* Another Republican is open to universal background checks: Here’s another:

Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed an assault weapons ban as ineffective. “But in terms of background checks, in terms of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and people who have serious mental health difficulties, we want to do that, and we would take a close look at that,” he told C-Span.

This comes after Chuck Grassley and GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey said the same. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Republicans justify opposing this, given that it doesn’t infringe on the rights of the law abiding in any way. Also see E.J. Dionne’s must read on how extremists control the gun debate and the urgent need to break their hegemony over it.

* Yes, universal background check can pass Congress: Sean Sullivan says what few others are willing to say:

Compared to an assault weapons ban, there is far greater overall consensus around the issue of strengthening background checks by requiring them in firearm sales at gun shows and in other private transactions, to end the so-called “gun show loophole.” […] Eighty-eight percent of Americans said they support a law requiring background checks in sales at gun shows, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, including 89 percent of Republicans.

Sullivan puts the odds of passage at 75 percent. So, no, Obama’s gun package isn’t necessarily doomed.

* Why the gun debate may be different this time: The New York Times gets this right:

Mr. Obama presented a comprehensive set of initiatives that was, for a change, structured around what needs to be done and not what political tacticians think the president could get a dysfunctional Congress to pass.

Yes. Also, keep in mind that each proposal can be introduced separately — and they have broad support. Obama was right to lay down an extremely ambitious initial proposal as a starting point.

* The NRA has gone too far: Ron Fournier has a good piece taking apart that wretched and dishonest NRA ad invoking Obama’s daughters. As Fournier notes, the NRA’s game is to imply we must choose between improving security in schools and doing more to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, a false choice that’s central to the organization’s strategy of deception and obfuscation. Also:

“The president has the most exciting campaign apparatus ever built. It’s time to turn that loose,” Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said on MSNBC. “If the NRA has a list, then Obama for America has a bigger list.”

Given the NRA’s historic success in whipping up an impassioned minority to cow lawmakers, I’ll be very curious to see what that looks like.

* The NRA ad is also highly misleading: Glenn Kessler does a nice job taking apart the substance of the ad. As he notes, Obama’s proposals actually include provisions for improving school security. And check out the bit about armed guards at Sidwell.

* Understanding how the NRA really works: The Post has an excellent overview of the NRA’s success in cowing state legislatures to expand “gun rights” on the state level. This demonstrates, again, that the NRA’s achievements rest heavily on its ability to rapidly mobilize an intense emotional response around a single issue to frighten lawmakers into doing its bidding. Much of what it does — such as the video about Obama’s daughters, which is designed to stoke resentment and rage — should be seen through this lens.

* How the NRA pressures Congress, Dems included: Relatedly, do check out the Post’s nifty infographic detailing which members of Congress get NRA money. Note that over two dozen House Dems have received NRA cash — keep an eye on how they respond if the NRA keeps up the despicable tactics.

What else?