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Background check compromise helps clear way for debate on major gun bill

In Washington

4:33 pm on Wed, 04.10.13

Updated at 12:19 pm on Thu, 04.11.13

On Thursday, the Senate voted 68 - 31 to rebuff initial delaying tactics and clear the way for debate on the gun legislation. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., voted against moving forward. Voting with the majority were U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. 

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan proposal on the thorny issue of background checks – proposed by four senators, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – may help pave the way for votes on the first major gun legislation in a decade.

The compromise, announced at a news conference by a moderate Democrat,
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and a conservative Republican,
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, may attract enough GOP support to
help assure that the Senate will vote Thursday to proceed to debate.

Mark Kirk
Mark Kirk

"Since the beginning of this process, Sen. Manchin and I agreed to find a deal that would reduce criminals' access to firearms while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Kirk said.

“Today we have a bipartisan product that curbs criminal access to weapons at gun shows -- commonly used by gang members all over Chicagoland.”

But U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate GOP leadership team who has qualms about expanding background checks for gun buyers, said he would have to study the plan closely before taking a position on it.

"I want to look at [the proposal] and see how the records are kept, whether or not they are publicly available, how it impacts people that are privately selling guns," Blunt told reporters Wednesday.

On the wider issue of whether the Senate should vote on gun control legislation, Blunt expressed doubts about provisions of the main bill but said he would support votes if both GOP and Democratic senators are allowed to offer amendments.

“I am generally of the view that it is better to debate the bill than not,” Blunt said. “But whether this bill is going to be fairly brought to the Senate floor is yet to be seen."

Amendment would close gun show loophole

The bipartisan proposal on gun background checks intends to close the current “gun show loophole” – under which those who buy guns at gun shows can avoid background checks – and to expand checks on online gun sales. But some gun-control advocates said it is weaker than the background-check sections of the main Senate bill.

The legislation, which will be offered as an amendment to the main Senate bill, addresses the concerns of some gun rights advocates by explicitly banning the federal government from creating a national firearms registry. It also imposes criminal penalties on any person convicted of misusing or illegally retaining firearms ownership records.

A summary of the proposal, the “Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act,” can be found here.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said the compromise wasn’t as stong as he would have liked, but said it represented “commonsense background checks that will make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun.”

While Obama said, “There are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,” he added that the proposal “recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who backs more stringent gun control laws, said the proposal would “not only help keep guns out of the wrong hands; it will help save lives and keep our communities safe.”

Bloomberg said Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group he founded and helps finance, will back the proposal. He commended Kirk and other sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for “work[ing] tirelessly on this issue.”

But gun rights groups criticized the proposal. “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,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement.

“While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘universal’ background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental-health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”

Another conservative group, Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank, also opposed the compromise.

Key vote Thursday

A dozen Republican senators had threatened a possible filibuster on the underlying gun bill – and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a vote Thursday to head off such a move. But Blunt said he doesn’t think a real filibuster will materialize.

Roy Blunt
Roy Blunt

“The so-called filibuster will just be a vote to decide whether we're ready to go to the bill or not,” Blunt said Wednesday. “That will depend largely on what these compromises look like and whether or not Democrats and Republicans have been offered the opportunity to amend the bill.”

The underlying Senate legislation is a package of gun proposals approved last month by the Judiciary Committee, with three main components:

  • Expanding background checks on gun buyers to close a loophole that now exempts private sales, including purchases made at gun shows. (The Kirk-Manchin-Toomey proposal would amend this section.)
  • Toughening laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases, based on a compromise backed by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Kirk.
  • Developing better approaches to improving school safety.
Claire McCaskill
Claire McCaskill

“There was bipartisan support [in committee] for two of the three components of the bill, said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., with only the background-check component getting no GOP votes. She backs all three of the main components.

Another, far more controversial, bill – which was dropped from the committee package – would reinstate the now-expired ban on semi-automatic rifles modeled on military assault weapons, as well as a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to offer that bill as an amendment.

Blunt, who feels strongly that Congress should focus more on improving mental health than on tightening gun control, said he was “disappointed” that a bill he is cosponsoring with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., did not make it into the main gun bill. Blunt's bill would expand access to mental health treatment and improve the quality of care at community mental health centers.

The Missouri senator said his bill offers “a real opportunity for us to look at the mental health component of these tragedies . . . The weapons may change, but the one thing that is consistent is that there is somebody who has a significant mental problem or they wouldn't be participating in this kind of tragic behavior.”

Blunt said mental health “is a question that we constantly want to sweep aside and act like it's not part of the problem. Because it's so much easier to jump up and down and talk about how people have abused the Second Amendment. I'm going to defend the Second Amendment.”

Taking a position that contrasts with that of Kirk, Blunt contended that expanding gun checks would not reduce gun violence in cities like St. Louis. “I think there are plenty of guns out there,” he said, “and anybody who is going to use a gun violently . . . doesn't buy it through a checked atmosphere anyway.”

If someone closely examined the records of guns used in violent crimes in St. Louis, Blunt predicted, “almost none of them were bought in any kind of public environment, including a gun show.”

Tough challenges still in strengthening gun laws

While the bipartisan proposal on background checks represented a potential step forward, backers of more stringent gun control laws said the road ahead is full of barriers – especially in the GOP-led House of Representatives.

“Of course, a lot of work remains,” Obama said in a statement. “Congress needs to finish the job. The Senate must overcome obstruction by defeating a threatened filibuster and allow a vote on this and other commonsense reforms to protect our kids and our communities.”

The president added: “Any bill still has to clear the House.  So I’m going to keep asking the American people to stand up and raise their voices, because these measures deserve a vote – and so do the families and communities they’re designed to protect.”

Dick Durbin
Dick Durbin

The White House and many Democrats – including Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat – strongly back universal background checks on nearly every type of gun sale. Many also support Feinstein’s plan to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But that amendment is unlikely to win a Senate vote.

While Bloomberg offered strong support for the latest compromise, other gun control groups were more reluctant in their assessment. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for example, said in a statement: “While we continue to review the draft bill, we believe a majority of the components are a good step forward to reducing gun violence.”

McCaskill told reporters that she expects numerous amendments and would make judgment calls on all of them. But she thinks it’s important to have an open debate.

“I’m sure there will be amendments Republicans will want to offer that would limit the scope and reach of any gun-safety measures. And there would be amendments offered by senators on the Democratic side that would expand the scope of this legislation.

“It seems to be that this is the kind of subject that the Senate should debate.” 

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