The deadly shooting rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard is prompting Senate Democratic leaders to consider a fresh attempt to advance legislation strengthening background checks for gun buyers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he’ll schedule another vote to expand firearms background checks “as quickly as we can” when enough members support the bill. Reid said at the moment, the Senate lacks enough votes to pass the legislation.
Reid spoke a day after a government contractor, Aaron Alexis, opened fire inside the Navy Yard complex about a mile from the U.S. Capitol, killing 12 people. He was then shot to death by police.
“Sadly, these tragedies so close to the Capitol remind us of our vulnerability,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat.
Four months after 20 school children and six adults were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the Senate on April 17 didn’t secure the 60 votes needed to pass the background check measure authored by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. It would have expanded mandatory background checks to include purchases from private dealers at gun shows and over the Internet.
The senators in favor of the failed background-check legislation expressed optimism they may be able to gather additional votes by combining a measure dealing with mental health issues with the previous bill.
“There’s a lot of consensus around some of the elements of a comprehensive strategy, like mental health,” which is “what we lacked in the last program,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who worked with families of the Newtown victims to press for new laws.
Manchin said he is open to adding a mental-health component. “I’ll support anything that moves,” he said.
Manchin said he has yet to discuss a strategy with Reid, and resistance remains high in the Senate to gun legislation. “I don’t think anything’s changed on guns,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who opposed the bill.
Even some of the effort’s staunchest backers expressed skepticism that a mass killing at the doorstep of Congress will alter the political landscape.
“I’d vote tomorrow for a strong background check,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. “Having said that, we got 40 votes, we need 60 votes, and to go through it all again, it’s a very emotional discussion because it involves human life, innocent life, and not to be able to succeed is hard.”
Alexis entered the Navy Yard with a shotgun that he bought legally in Virginia, and he may have picked up a handgun once inside the Navy Yard, said Valerie Parlave, the assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington field office. She said officials have no indication he had a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.
Most gun-restriction measures are opposed by Republicans, while Democratic supporters haven’t won over some colleagues facing a potential backlash from the gun lobby and voters in their states.
“I hope that some members will reconsider their opposition,” Durbin said. “This individual appeared to have some background issues that should have raised some questions.”
The April background-check vote, the most significant gun restriction vote in 20 years, marked a sharp rejection of an Obama administration priority. It also countered 90 percent public support in some polls of mandatory background checks.
Five Democrats voted against the background-check measure: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus announced soon after the vote that he will retire at the end of his current term. Reid voted no, allowing himself under Senate rules to seek reconsideration of the vote.
“If I read the reports, he bought his guns legally and had a background check, so the issue that that gentlemen had was mental-health issues,” Begich told reporters today at the Capitol, noting that he has introduced legislation that would have made sure Alexis “would have been in the background check system” when he sought to buy a gun.
“That’s what we should be doing,” Begich said. “That’s what I’m for, and that’s what I’ve been trying to get the Senate to vote on.”
Pryor and Begich face re-election next year in states carried by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat who leads state polls in a bid to replace the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, said he hoped yesterday’s shooting “changes the conversation, especially on the mental-health issue.”
“We’ve seen now a few mass shootings where there were mental-health signs that I think should have prevented an individual from getting a gun or getting a weapon,” Booker, who is running in an Oct. 16 special election for the Senate seat, said today in an interview at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat who pushed for tougher gun laws after the Newtown shooting, told reporters today at the Capitol that the public is running out of patience as Congress fails to act.
“The public is not going to sit by and allow this place to ignore mass shooting after mass shooting,” Murphy said. “There comes a time where the people have to get what they want in the Senate.”
Murphy said he hadn’t spoken to Democratic opponents of the background-check measure, and said that “no matter what state you’re in,” there was broad support for expanded background checks.
Manchin told reporters today that it was too soon to say whether he would renew his background check expansion push.
“I haven’t heard all the reports, and I think we need to do that,” Manchin said. “It’s so wrong to keep talking about gun control. We should be talking about gun sense, and that’s all out bill did.”
Last week Colorado voters -- in an effort backed by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby -- recalled two state legislators who supported stricter gun laws. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, poured money into opposing the effort.
Arizona Senator John McCain, one of four Republicans who supported the background check measure in April, said in an interview that the Navy Yard shooting shows a need to change gun laws.
“We should do what we can to keep weapons out of the hands of people who are mentally unstable,” McCain said.