Senate plans gun background check

2013-04-17 16:40
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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Washington — A bipartisan effort to expand background checks for firearms purchasers was in deep trouble as the Senate approaches a long-awaited vote on Wednesday on the cornerstone of the drive to curb gun violence in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school massacre.

In the run-up to the roll call, so many Republicans had declared their opposition to the background check measure that supporters — mostly Democrats — seemed headed to defeat unless they could turn votes around in the final hours. Supporters seemed likely to lose some moderate Democratic senators as well.

"It's a struggle," New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the No 3 Senate Democrat, conceded on Tuesday.

Twenty children and six adults were shot dead at a school in Connecticut in December, galvanising efforts to pass gun control legislation — the first in two decades. Some of the victims' families, with the backing of President Barack Obama, have launched an increased effort to lobby lawmakers personally and push a gun control bill through a bitterly divided Congress.

The Senate gun bill would extend background checks to nearly all gun purchases, toughen penalties against illegal gun trafficking and add small sums to school safety programs. However, even if passed, the bill stops well short of Obama's original call to ban assault rifles and the high capacity magazines that leave shooters able to fire large bursts of ammunition without having to reload.

Obama has since made the near universal background checks the heart of his gun control plan.

More public support for gun control

"Every once and awhile we are confronted with an issue that should transcend politics," Obama said in an interview that aired on Wednesday on NBC's Today show. "And now's the time for us to take some measure of action that's going to prevent some of these tragedies from happening again."

Perhaps helping explain Democrats' problems, an AP-GfK poll this month showed that 49% of Americans support stricter gun laws. That was down from 58% who said so in January — a month after the December killings of 20 children and six aides at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, propelled gun violence into a national issue.

Just over half the public — 52% — expressed disapproval in the new survey of how Obama has handled gun laws. Weeks after the Newtown slayings, Obama made a call for near universal background checks the heart of his gun control plan.

In a climactic day, the Senate planned to hold eight other votes on Wednesday besides the one on background checks, all of them amendments to a broad gun control measure.

They included Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which are expected to lose; a Republican proposal requiring states to honour other states' permits allowing concealed weapons, which faces a close vote; and a Republican substitute for the overall gun measure.

The concealed weapons amendment, seen by advocates as protecting gun rights, was vehemently opposed by gun control groups, who say it would allow more guns into states with stricter firearms laws.

Extended background checks

Even if a gun control bill passes the Senate, it would face a tough road to approval in the Republican-led House of Representatives and could possibly die there.

The Senate votes were coming a day after former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, badly wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, tried to rally support for gun control by visiting Capitol Hill and attending a private lunch with Democratic senators. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the lunch — senators said it included emotional speeches from lawmakers — "as moving as any" he has attended.

Background checks, aimed at screening out criminals and the seriously mentally ill from getting firearms, now apply only to purchases handled by licensed firearms dealers.

Wednesday's first vote was on an amendment by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Patrick Toomey, extending the background checks to firearms sales at gun shows and online. The compromise was widely seen as advocates' best chance for winning enough Republican votes to muscle broadened checks through the Senate.

Opponents say expanded background checks would be ignored by criminals and violate the Second Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees the right to bear arms. They fear that it could lead to a national registry of gun owners that would facilitate taxing or confiscating their firearms.

As the roll call approached, Manchin and others kept saying they were close — but never said they had the votes they needed.

Republican support

"We're close, but we sure need their help," Manchin told reporters after he and Toomey met privately with Giffords and Kelly.

In a sign that the two senators faced a steep path to victory, they were no longer considering a change to their bill that would have exempted people who live far from gun dealers.

Such people have a difficult time getting to dealers' shops to have background checks performed. The hope had been to attract votes from Alaska and North Dakota senators, and the sponsors' decision to move ahead without it suggested that their effort to win over those senators would fail.

No 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin said Democrats would need support from nine or 10 Republicans — a daunting task.

Opponents will need just 41 of the Senate's 100 votes to derail the Manchin-Toomey background check plan.

Thirty-one senators voted last week to completely block debate on overall gun legislation. Just two were Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska.

If all 31 oppose the Manchin-Toomey measure — and that is not certain — opponents would need just 10 more votes to prevail.

'Don't listen to Obama'

So far, 11 of 16 Republicans who voted last week to let debate on the gun bill begin have said they will oppose Manchin-Toomey. That would give foes of expanded background checks 42 potential votes — one more than they need to win.

Still uncertain was support from some Democrats from Republican-leaning states, including Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus and Landrieu face re-election next year.

Obama, in an interview with NBC television's Today show, urged lawmakers to pay attention to public support for expanding background checks and remember the massacre at Sandy Hook.

"The notion that Congress would defy the overwhelming instinct of the American people after what we saw happen in Newtown, I think is unimaginable," Obama said in the interview, aired on Tuesday.

Opposition to tougher gun control legislation, including expanded background checks, has been led by the National Rifle Association, the influential gun rights lobbying group.

NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said the organisation was spending $500 000 on an online video ad on conservative and Washington-area websites that cites a survey from a police-oriented website showing opposition to gun control proposals.

"Tell your senator to listen to America's police, instead of listening to Obama and Bloomberg," said the ad, referring to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent millions from his own fortune on ads advocating gun control measures.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  us school shooting  |  gun control

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