Washington is still capable of surprise. After two conservative, gun-owning senators from states with a strong gun culture couldn’t move modest gun-safety legislation through the Senate, something unusual happened: Their proposal didn’t die.

The defeat earlier this month of a sensible, incremental and overwhelmingly popular bill to expand background checks on gun purchases was a clear victory for the gun lobby. Yet instead of running for political cover, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are back, seeking to revive bipartisan negotiations to enhance gun safety. The politics of guns is changing.

The National Rifle Association is a lobbying and marketing organization with more than $200 million in annual revenue. Common sense lacks a similarly well-endowed lobby. However, by strengthening law enforcement, research and political resources, supporters of gun safety can begin to alter what has long been a losing dynamic. Eventually, even Congress will come around.

The Barack Obama administration should start by following the advice of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who continually exhorts the federal government to “enforce the law.” LaPierre has a point, even if his energies are spent subverting the very laws he claims to want enforced.

Compliance’s Role

In 2012, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted more than 13,000 compliance checks at the nation’s 69,000 federally licensed gun dealers, and found about half of them were “in full compliance with the law.” That means half were not.

Are the violations minor? The ATF says that “commonly disclosed” compliance failures include not verifying a buyer’s eligibility, not accounting for gun stock, not properly recording receipts or documenting gun transfers, and not reporting multiple sales. In other words, not following the basic tenets of U.S. firearms law.

To put that in perspective, between 2004 and 2011, there were 174,679 documented thefts and losses from gun dealer inventories. Yet the ATF seeks to revoke dealer licenses in only 0.5 percent of inspections. A Department of Justice inspector general report released last week said the majority of licensed dealers hadn’t been inspected at all between 2007 and 2012.

The history of one of the nation’s most notorious gun shops, Valley Gun of Baltimore, is perhaps instructive. From 1996 to 2000, the store accounted for almost 500 guns traced to crimes, including 11 homicides. An ATF inspection found one quarter of Valley Gun’s inventory was unaccounted for. Despite hundreds of documented violations, the store remained open until 2006.

Most gun dealers are responsible. In fact, a 2000 report by the ATF found that only 2 percent of licensed dealers accounted for more than half of the guns used in crimes in 1998 that were traced to dealers. A focused ATF could target bad actors without burdening law-abiding gun shops. But it will need help from Congress to overcome what the inspector general report termed “insufficient investigator resources.”

The gun lobby has long worked to defund the ATF and thwart its operations. But the Obama administration has recently taken executive actions to bolster policing -- requiring, for example, that all federal law enforcement agencies submit confiscated guns to the ATF for tracing. It is also working to improve the quality of information flowing into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. In addition, the White House has directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume studying the causes and effects of gun violence. Funding for this research had been halted by members of Congress under the gun lobby’s influence.

Research’s Power

The gun lobby fears research, and has gone to great lengths to squelch it, for the same reason the tobacco lobby once did: It undermines their cause. Researchers including Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (co-founded by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg) have revealed how easy it is for criminals to obtain guns at unregulated gun shows.

To make sure the public learns about these findings and others to come, supporters of gun regulation will need to build a more robust political and communications network. Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, are committed to improving public awareness of gun violence, and to raising the political stakes for lawmakers.

Two weeks ago, to protect residents of the Boston area from an armed suspect, authorities brought the city to a standstill -- a compelling expression of American values. Supporters of gun safety must work to instill the gun debate with a similar reverence for humanity.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.