Gun-Control Setback: Senate Blocks Background-Check Plan

Wide public support for background checks didn’t sway the Senate
President Obama walks with Vice President Biden before making a statement on gun violence at the White House on April 17 Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama got his vote on gun control, but not the vote—or the results—he wanted. On April 17, the White House campaign to tighten federal restrictions on firearms ran into a wall of Republican opposition and Democratic ambivalence.

While liberal activists decried the legislative flop, the outcome should not have shocked anyone who listened to Democratic leaders’ tentative tone since the December massacre in Newtown, Conn. In the crescendo of his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Obama said of gun-violence victims, “They deserve a vote.” Not that they deserve swift passage of curbs on assault weapons, large-capacity ammunition magazines, and so on. They deserve, the president said, a vote.

In the Democratic-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid followed the president’s plea for mere consideration by signaling weeks ago that the assault-weapons and ammo provisions never stood a chance. Even after Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania drafted a bipartisan compromise on expanding criminal background checks, Reid could not muster the Democratic backing needed. The proposal to require checks for sales not just by licensed dealers but also by sellers operating at gun shows and over the Internet received 54 votes, with 46 senators turning thumbs down. To achieve final passage, proponents needed 60 votes.

More comprehensive screening of gun buyers is supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 88 percent of gun-owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1. The politics, however, just didn’t work for gun-control advocates. Republicans including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who agreed not to filibuster a gun-control debate, refused to go along with the Manchin-Toomey screening provision, even though it would have carved out an exception for transactions between neighbors and family members. And Democratic senators facing tough 2014 reelection fights in pro-gun states—such as Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana—declined to risk the wrath of the National Rifle Association and its vigorous local affiliates. Rather than threatening to knock heads within the president’s party, the White House sounded notably mild in the runup to Senate floor action. “We’re gonna get this eventually,” Vice President Joe Biden said before ceremonially presiding over the vote. “If we don’t get it today, we’ll get it eventually.”

The fizzling of gun control, at least for now, underscores how drastically the debate has moved toward the libertarian, anti-regulation pole. The NRA backed comprehensive background checks as recently as 1999. Today, the NRA and most Republicans in Congress oppose screening all commercial gun sales for criminals, fugitives, and the severely mentally ill because they claim doing so will lead to national firearm registration. A registry, this slippery-slope argument goes, will then facilitate gun confiscation.

For perspective, recall that 20 years ago, Congress was busy debating—and approving—the precursor to the existing background-check system, curbs on military-style semiautomatic rifles (“assault weapons,” in the political argot), and a 10-round limit on ammo capacity. The latter two provisions expired nine years ago.

Two factors inhibited influential Democrats from engaging in a real brawl on guns: First, they fear losing their tenuous 55-45 hold on the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections. Second, there’s a palpable sense in Washington that Obama’s other major social-issue priority, immigration reform, has a better chance than gun control in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner, contending with the rambunctious Tea Party wing of his party, had refused to commit to allowing a House floor vote on firearm limits. In the end, Democrats calculated that, even after Newtown, expanding immigration is a better bet than restricting guns.


    The bottom line: Stricter screening of gun purchases had little chance in Congress, even though polls show 91 percent of Americans want it.

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