Background-Check Deal May Help End Gun-Show ExceptionHeidi Przybyla and James Rowley
An agreement between two U.S. senators to expand background checks of firearm purchasers boosts prospects that the Democratic-led Senate will pass a broader plan intended to curb gun violence.
The compromise between Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, means the Senate will agree to debate the measure, several Republican senators said. Majority Leader Harry Reid set a vote for 11 a.m. today on whether to advance the bill and said debate could stretch into the week of April 22.
“We will get on a bill,” John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, said in an interview yesterday in Washington. Still, Republicans will mount stiff opposition in the House, where leaders haven’t committed to taking up gun legislation.
Toomey and Manchin’s plan will be offered as an amendment to a bill that would also increase school-safety funds and set stronger penalties for gun trafficking. That’s a scaled-back version of a gun-safety agenda President Barack Obama outlined after 20 children and six adults were killed in a Dec. 14 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Obama said in a statement that while he would prefer that parts of the Toomey-Manchin plan were stronger, the agreement “does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress.”
“We don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence,” the president said.
Toomey and Manchin’s plan 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.
Manchin and other advocates were hesitant to declare victory as they sought support from Republicans and Democrats from pro-gun states. They need 60 votes to overcome Republican attempts to block votes, and Democrats control 55 seats in the 100-member Senate. Toomey called it a “fluid situation.”
Earlier, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 13 other Senate Republicans said they would seek to block consideration of the gun measure. Thune said Senate Republicans will offer a number of amendments once the bill reaches the floor. That might pose risks to the legislation.
“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 National Rifle Association.
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.
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 would be offered in the Senate as amendments, which stand little chance of adoption.
In an interview, Manchin said the legislation should appeal to law-abiding gun owners because it would prevent criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms. The biggest obstacle is “paranoia,” he said.
“People are just leery of government overreaching and they’re just saying ‘do nothing,’” Manchin said. “That’s always a safe vote here in Congress.”
Republicans in the Senate and House left open the possibility of accepting the Toomey-Manchin compromise on background checks.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said Republicans discussed it during a luncheon yesterday, “not negatively, but just trying to understand what it does.”
“There are some concerns about it,” said Thune, though “they’ve improved it significantly from where it was.”
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.
The NRA, which has opposed expanded background checks, said in a statement 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.”
In a letter to senators released last night, 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 had 2011 revenue of $219 million, according to NRA tax returns.
Even if the measure clears the Senate, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House remain unclear. Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that oversees gun legislation, said Republicans haven’t decided what to do.
“We do intend to address the issue, but how exactly we’ll do it has not yet been determined,” Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said in an interview. In February, he said he opposed expanded background checks and that his committee wouldn’t hold hearings on the proposal.
Republican leaders “almost have to” allow House consideration of the legislation if it passes the Senate with bipartisan support, said Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole. There will be strong opposition in the House, said Cole and Republican Candice Miller of Michigan.
Miller said more emphasis should be put on improving care for the mentally ill and expanding mental-health records in the federal background-check database. The Senate legislation would penalize states that don’t provide available criminal and mental health records.
If the Senate sends gun legislation to the House, its fate may depend on whether Speaker John Boehner will hold a vote on a bill that most of his Republican members don’t support. That means Democratic votes would be needed to pass it.
Boehner has done that more than once in the past several months, including on an end-of-year agreement on tax cuts and a bill to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
“Public opinion being what it is, if the speaker schedules a vote, enough Republicans will join Democrats to pass it,” said John Hudak, a fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.
Separately, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, announced an agreement with the NRA and Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins on a provision to toughen penalties for illegal gun trafficking.
The measure would ban “straw purchases” of guns for use by others. Leahy and Collins said in a statement that the changes would allow lawful purchasers to buy weapons from gun dealers to be given away as prizes in raffles and contests as well as for employee bonuses and gratuities.
Toomey and Manchin’s plan would mandate record-keeping of background checks. That’s a Democratic proposal the NRA opposes.
Law enforcement officials say records are needed to ensure that the rules are followed and to trace weapons used in crimes. The NRA has said such records could lead to a national gun registry.
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.