The U.S. Senate voted to advance a scaled-back version of the gun-safety agenda President Barack Obama proposed after the shootings of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Senators today voted 68-31, with at least 60 needed, to move the measure toward debate. The legislation would expand background checks of gun purchasers, increase funding for school safety and set new penalties for gun trafficking.
“The hard work starts now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said immediately after the vote. Earlier, he said, “We have a responsibility to do everything in our power to keep guns out of the hands of those who suffer from severe mental illnesses” and of convicted felons.
The nationwide debate over gun control was reignited by the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to fire 154 bullets in less than five minutes, court documents said. Obama sought to renew a ban on assault weapons and size limits for ammunition magazines. Those proposals were dropped from the Senate measure amid opposition from the National Rifle Association.
White House press secretary Jay Carney today called the vote the first step toward passing “sensible, common sense” legislation to curb gun violence.
The president called some families of Newtown victims to offer congratulations, telling them the vote “would not have been possible without their efforts,” Carney told reporters.
Even if the Senate passes a gun measure, it would encounter stiff opposition in the House, where Republican leaders haven’t even committed to taking up gun legislation.
“If the Senate passes a bill, the House will certainly review it,” Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters today. He said he wouldn’t make a “blanket” commitment to bring a bill to the House floor.
Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that Republicans “do intend to address the issue, but how exactly we’ll do it has not yet been determined.” In February, the Virginia Republican said he opposed expanded background checks and that his committee wouldn’t hold hearings on the proposal.
In today’s Senate vote, 16 Republicans joined 52 Democrats in voting to move forward with the bill, S. 649. Two Senate Democrats facing re-election in 2014, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, joined 29 Republicans in opposition.
Relatives of those killed in the Newtown shootings were in the visitors’ gallery as the Senate voted.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said yesterday that debate and votes on the gun legislation may stretch into the week of April 22. “We have people waiting in the wings to offer amendments,” he said today.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, sought to block the measure, calling it a “clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends and family.”
Today’s vote followed yesterday’s bipartisan compromise by two senators on a plan to expand background checks of firearm purchasers. The proposal by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, would require background checks for gun sales over the Internet and between private parties at gun shows.
Noncommercial person-to-person firearms sales wouldn’t be covered, a tradeoff Democrats made to win Republican support. Democrats wanted to require background checks for almost all gun sales. The proposal will be offered as the first amendment to the Senate bill, Reid said.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control; it’s just common sense,” Toomey said at a news conference with Manchin yesterday. Toomey’s backing may help draw the support of Republicans and Democrats from pro-gun states. Manchin has an “A” rating from the pro-gun-rights NRA.
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.
“The political landscape in America on gun safety is changing before our eyes,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat. “Four months ago gun safety and gun violence were thought to be politically untouchable in America.”
Still, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said, “Make no mistake about it. We have a tough fight” to pass the gun measure. “It will be a struggle to prevent bad amendments from getting added.”
Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said one of the greatest risks to the legislation is “pernicious” amendments or a barrage of amendments by senators seeking to stall the voting process.
Obama is campaigning to preserve momentum for what’s left of the gun-control measures he proposed in January after the massacre in Newtown. His proposals to ban military-style semiautomatic rifles and limit ammunition-magazine capacity will be offered in the Senate 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 the Newtown victims visited Senate offices this week.
Lawmakers who sought to block the bill “should be ashamed of their attempt to silence efforts to prevent the next American tragedy,” a group of victims’ relatives said in a statement today. “No one should have to experience the pain we have endured - commonsense gun laws will help spare others from the grief we live with every day.”
The NRA, which has opposed expanded background checks, said in a statement yesterday that “expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools.”
The NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, urged lawmakers to reject the Toomey-Manchin proposal, calling it “misguided.” Cox said the group would take into account votes on the measure and others it considers as infringing gun rights in rating lawmakers’ records.
The NRA is the nation’s largest gun-rights lobby, and the Fairfax, Virginia-based nonprofit organization says it has 4 million members. The group had 2011 revenue of $219 million, according to NRA tax returns.
Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, said at a news conference today that he and New York Representative Peter King plan to introduce companion legislation to the background check amendment in the House.