Two U.S. senators reached a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks of gun purchasers that they plan to announce later today, according to a Senate aide.
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has been negotiating with Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican whose support may prove critical to passing that part of President Barack Obama’s gun agenda. Manchin and Toomey plan to hold a news briefing at 11 a.m. today in Washington.
Toomey’s backing may help draw the support of Republicans and Democrats from pro-gun states. Manchin has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which opposes new gun restrictions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a procedural vote tomorrow on advancing the gun legislation, which also would crack down on firearms trafficking and increase funding for school safety.
Even if the legislation with background checks passes the Democratic-led Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the Republican-run House.
The measure is part of a gun-safety agenda Obama proposed after 20 children and six adults were killed in a Dec. 14 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama’s proposals to renew a ban on assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines were dropped from the main Senate bill because of a lack of support from lawmakers.
Toomey and Manchin were discussing an expansion of current law to require background checks for gun sales over the Internet and between private parties at gun shows, according to the aide, who asked not to be identified in describing the discussions. Noncommercial person-to-person firearms sales wouldn’t be covered, the aide said.
Democrats wanted to require background checks for almost all gun sales, though some supporters said the approach by Toomey and Manchin would be a good compromise.
“I want it as comprehensive as can be,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. Even so, “if you took care of online sales and gun shows, it would be significant,” he said.
The plan Manchin and Toomey were discussing would mandate record-keeping of the background checks, according to the aide. That is a Democratic proposal opposed by the NRA, the nation’s largest gun-rights lobby.
Law enforcement officials say records are needed to ensure that the rules are followed and to help trace weapons used in crimes.
Earlier talks stalled between Senators Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, over Coburn’s objections to the recordkeeping requirement, which the NRA has said could lead to a national gun registry.
The compromise “is a huge step forward because it provides for strong background checks on the sales venues and avenues that are easiest for criminals to exploit,” said Arkadi Gerney, a crime and gun policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned group in Washington.
In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia has said he opposes expanded background checks and doesn’t plan to hold hearings on the proposal.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, announced his decision yesterday to proceed with gun legislation as some Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t join Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 13 other party members in seeking to block debate. Those Republicans haven’t said whether they would try to block a proposal with a revised background-check plan from Toomey and Manchin.
“I’m going forward on this,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “The American people deserve a vote.”
While Reid said he didn’t know whether he had enough votes to prevent Republicans from blocking the measure, a leadership aide who asked not to be identified said Democrats are confident they will gain enough support.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that we would not move forward with debate and amendments on an issue that’s so important to the American people,” said Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.
Joining McCain in saying they wouldn’t block debate were Republican Senators Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine.
Sixty votes are needed to advance the measure in the chamber; Democrats control 55 votes. Even if senators overcome the procedural hurdle, the background-check provision would have been difficult to pass without agreement between Manchin and Toomey to replace the original background check language.
Obama is campaigning to preserve momentum for what is left of the gun-control measures he proposed in January after the shootings in Newtown.
His call to revive a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles and to limit ammunition-magazine capacity was opposed by the NRA and its allies in Congress. Those proposals were excluded from the Senate bill and will be offered as amendments, which stand little chance of adoption.
Advocacy groups and family members of gun-violence victims have sought to offset the influence of the NRA. Relatives of Newtown victims flew to Washington on Air Force One with the president on April 8 to press lawmakers for action on the issue.
In a conference call with reporters, the relatives wouldn’t identify which senators they met with and what responses they received to their pleas. Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan, 6, was killed at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, said they were “received very warmly and openly.”
Groups such as CeaseFirePA have pressed Toomey, who represents a Democratic-leaning state that voted for Obama, to support the Senate effort. The group organized an April 9 rally outside the senator’s Philadelphia office to urge his support.
“Senator Toomey is showing guts,” former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said at the rally.
Complicating Democratic leaders’ efforts are objections from members of their party from pro-gun states.
Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska said they were considering whether to join the Republicans seeking to block the original bill.
Vice President Joe Biden called it “embarrassing” that a small group of senators would prevent a vote on legislation that has broad public support. “The public is so far beyond where the Congress is,” he said.
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of American 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.
In the Newtown massacre, court documents show that Adam Lanza, 20, brought 10 30-round ammunition magazines into the Sandy Hook school, reloaded six times and fired 154 bullets from his Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in less than five minutes.
About 6.6 million firearms are sold each year without background checks because they aren’t required for private sales, including those at weapons shows, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The group is led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
NRA President David Keene has maintained that universal background checks could lead to “forced buybacks” or door-to-door confiscation of weapons by the government. His Fairfax, Virginia-based group says it has 4 million members. The first step to confiscation, the organization has said, would be the creation of a government registry of gun owners.
Licensed U.S. firearms dealers have been keeping sales records since passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, while background checks on all U.S. commercial sales began in 1993. The creation of a national gun registry is prohibited under federal law.