The Senate defeated a plan to expand background checks for firearm purchasers, imperilling President Barack Obama’s bid for new gun-control measures four months after 20 schoolchildren were shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut.
Senators voted 54-46, with 60 needed to adopt the measure, as several Democrats joined most Republicans in opposition. The vote was the most significant on gun control in 20 years, and it bucked 90 percent public-opinion support of mandatory background checks.
“Anyone who thinks this is going away is sorely mistaken,” said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who accompanied Newtown victims’ relatives to Washington last week. “If we don’t change the laws, there’s going to be another shooting,” he said. “Maybe then people will wake up.”
The defeated amendment was offered last week by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, in an effort to create a proposal that could get bipartisan support.
The debate over gun control was reignited by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 children and six school employees. Obama proposed a gun-safety agenda weeks later, including a ban on assault weapons and size limits on ammunition magazines.
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Those proposals were removed from the Senate bill amid National Rifle Association opposition. The nation’s largest gun lobby, which claims 4 million members, also said expanded background checks wouldn’t stop further killings and could lead to a national gun registry. Federal law bars such a registry, and licensed gun dealers have kept sales records since 1968.
While Democratic leaders had accepted that the gun legislation may not pass the Senate, today’s series of votes on amendments might help lay the foundation for advancing in the future. Some senators could try to bring up a background-check proposal again, particularly if there is a backlash to the bill’s defeat.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama opposed expanded background checks, calling them a “legislative misfire.”
“Who knows what will come next?” said Shelby. “These restrictions will not prevent the next tragedy.” Congress should instead focus on “glorified violence” in Hollywood, he said.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the legislation is in the “feel-good category” and won’t prevent another Newtown.
Manchin spoke on the Senate floor today about the resistant Democrats and Republicans.
“I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics,” Manchin said. “I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time, when you know the facts are on your side and you walk into the lion’s den and look that lion in the eye, and tell that lion, ‘Not today.’”
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain took the floor to applaud Manchin and Toomey for “political courage.”
“You may not win today, but you did the right thing,” said McCain. “Doing the right thing is always a reward in itself,” he said. “Sooner or later this country will take up this issue.”
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun- owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said lawmakers who voted against the broader bill, with background checks, would be thwarting the will of the American people.
“That is their right,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “But they should not spread misinformation or sow seeds of fear about this critical anti-violence provision.”
The majority leader said he decided to vote for a renewed ban on assault weapons offered in a separate amendment, reversing his opposition from a decade ago.
“Assault weapons have one purpose and one purpose only, to kill a large number of people really quick,” Reid said. “This goes well beyond the purpose of self-defense.”
The Senate legislation also would increase funding for school safety and set new penalties for gun trafficking. It gained momentum last week when Manchin and Toomey agreed on the bolstered background-check plan.
Still, several Democrats from pro-gun states balked. Democratic leaders said they needed as many as 10 Republican votes to adopt the expanded background-check measure. Democrats control the Senate 55-45.
The president has campaigned across the U.S. for his gun proposals, and he brought relatives of Newtown victims to Washington on Air Force One last week to lobby lawmakers for their support. Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head at a 2011 constituent event, met with Senate Democrats yesterday.
Current law requires background checks for gun purchases from federally licensed dealers. Manchin and Toomey’s proposal would expand that to include purchases from private dealers at gun shows and over the Internet. It would exempt non-commercial gun sales or transfers between family members.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas proposed an amendment to allow people with permits for carrying concealed guns to take them to other states, including those with stricter standards for issuing permits.
“I have a great deal of concern about concealed carry,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said earlier this week. “New York City is not Wyoming.”
Even if the bill passed the Senate, it still would face an uncertain fate in the House, where there is widespread Republican opposition. Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said he won’t make a “blanket” commitment to bring a gun measure to the House floor.
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