President Barack Obama’s bid for new gun-control measures will be defeated today unless Senate Democratic leaders succeed in a final push to pick up the votes needed to expand background checks for gun purchasers.
Democratic leaders scheduled today’s votes on amendments to S. 649 starting at 4 p.m. Washington time. The centerpiece, a measure to include background checks for firearms purchases over the Internet and at gun shows, is at least five votes short of the 60 needed, according to an informal count leaders are using to target undecided lawmakers. It will be the most significant vote on gun control in 20 years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said lawmakers who vote against the broader bill, with background checks, will 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.”
Democratic leaders may lose at least four of their members, including Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. All except Heitkamp face re-election in 2014.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia and co-sponsor of the background checks, 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. I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time,” Manchin said, “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.’”
Reid said the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, are a “wake-up call” that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to curb gun killings.
Still, leaders have accepted that the legislation may not pass the Senate, even as a series of additional votes today 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.
The Senate plans to vote on proposals to ban assault weapons, limit large-capacity ammunition magazines and allow people with concealed-weapon permits to carry hidden firearms into other states. These amendments also will require 60 votes for adoption.
Reid said today he will vote for the renewed ban on assault weapons, reversing his opposition from a decade ago. Even so, the amendment stands little chance of passage.
“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.”
Manchin, co-sponsoring background-check amendment with Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey, told NBC News this morning that his proposal was a handful of votes short of the number needed for adoption.
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.
Just weeks later, Obama proposed an agenda intended to curb gun violence that included an assault-weapons ban and limits on ammunition magazines. Those proposals were removed from the Senate bill amid National Rifle Association opposition.
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 a bolstered background-check plan.
Still, several Democrats from pro-gun states said they were undecided. Democratic leaders said they would need as many as 10 Republican votes to adopt the expanded background-check measure. Democrats control the Senate 55-45.
White House spokesman Jay Carney joined Reid and Manchin today in expressing frustration over “bogus information” about what the bill does. The NRA and some of its Republican allies including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have said the bill would lead to a national gun registry. Federal law prohibits a registry, and licensed gun dealers have been keeping sales records since passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.
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.
“In these final hours, we’re engaged in a full-court press on both sides of the aisle for a bipartisan compromise,” Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat seeking a ban on large ammunition magazines, said in a statement late yesterday. “These votes afford an opportunity to keep faith with the families of Newtown.”
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.
“A lot of people are struggling at this point,” the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said yesterday after Senate Democrats’ weekly private luncheon.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas proposed the amendment that would allow people with permits for carrying concealed guns to take them to other states.
Senate Democratic leaders say the concealed-carry amendment, if adopted, could unravel backing for the gun-safety legislation.
“I have a great deal of concern about concealed carry,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said in an interview this week. “New York City is not Wyoming.”
Dennis Henigan, former vice president of the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that requiring states to honor concealed-carry permits issued by any other state would “block states like California and New York from enforcing their strict laws against out-of-state visitors who have concealed-weapon permits.”
Other amendments set to receive a vote include one to increase the penalties for illegal gun trafficking, such as “straw purchases” by one person for another.
A Republican alternative proposed by Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Charles Grassley of Iowa would add more mental-health and criminal records to the background database, without requiring additional gun purchasers to undergo the check.
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.
Even if the bill passes the Senate, it still faces 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.