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In harsh blow to gun control efforts, Senate defeats key amendments

In Washington

5:18 pm on Wed, 04.17.13

Updated at 11:58 am on Thu, 04.18.13

WASHINGTON – In a severe blow to efforts to tighten the nation’s gun control laws, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday failed to advance a bipartisan compromise on background checks that had been regarded as key to passing a wider gun bill. Proposals to ban assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines also were defeated.

With Vice President Joe Biden in the chair, the Senate’s 54-46 vote in favor of the background check amendment – sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and three others – fell short of the 60 votes needed. (This Washington Post article explains why 60 votes were required.)

Mark Kirk
Mark Kirk

Joining Kirk in supporting the measure were U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Voting no was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. In all, 41 Republicans and five Democrats from mainly rural states voted to scuttle the plan.

The separate votes to defeat the proposed ban on assault weapons and to limit the size of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds lost by wider margins. In both cases, Blunt was the only senator from Missouri and Illinois to vote against the amendments.

The failure to expand background checks – one of several gun votes in the Senate on Tuesday, all of which failed to reach 60 votes – followed months of national debate in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and others at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn.

After the vote, an at times emotional President Barack Obama – citing surveys that indicate that “90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun” – accused a Senate “minority” of scuttling the background-check compromise and the gun lobby of lying about its potential impact. He called Wednesday's votes "a pretty shameful day for Washington."

Other gun control backers also expressed dismay. “Today’s vote is a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had lobbied heavily for stricter gun control, in a statement.

“Shame on you!” yelled a woman in the Senate gallery who was later identified as a survivor of the 2011 Tucson mass shooting that badly injured former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat who had lobbied in favor of the Manchin-Kirk amendment. Joining her protest was a woman who had been at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting there six years ago this month.

START UPDATE: St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson also expressed his concerns about the local impact of the failure to pass the national legislation.

"I believe all politics are local, and by rejecting the increased background checks, they put lives at risk at the local level," said Dotson. "Nationally, 70 percent of homicides are committed with a firearm. In St. Louis, that number is about 85 percent. We have to have better gun control laws; we have to have better background checks." END UPDATE

But gun rights groups that had opposed the Manchin-Kirk measure, including the National Rifle Association, hailed the Senate votes as an affirmation of Second Amendment rights to gun ownership.

"This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens,” said the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox. In a statement, he claimed that “expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools.”

During the Senate debate, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was dismayed by the “lack of courage” of some senators in failing to back stricter background checks. Her amendment to reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons was defeated, 40-60. 

Republicans who opposed the background-check expansion, led by U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ted Cruz, R-Tx., accused Democrats of trying to “compromise the Second Amendment.”

After his amendment was defeated, Kirk said: “I am disappointed that the Senate could not come together to support a bipartisan proposal that would reduce gun violence and protect law-abiding gun owners, but American voters are the ultimate judge of today’s result.”

McCaskill expressed frustration that the Senate had “voted down a host of safety measures, like simple background checks, that are overwhelmingly supported by the American public and that are unquestionably constitutional. The idea that anyone could reflect upon recent events and engage in such a spirited defense of the status quo is disappointing."

Missouri, Illinois senators reflect on the votes

Even though supporters of tougher gun laws – including parents of Sandy Hook victims – continued lobbying up until the last minute, most knew for weeks that they were fighting an uphill battle in Congress.

And in a week during which terrorist bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon and envelopes containing deadly ricin were sent to the White House and a senator, the message of gun control activists – that Congress needs to act – was somewhat diluted.

One of the few Republican senators sympathetic to efforts to tighten background checks and anti-trafficking laws, Kirk met with a group of Sandy Hook parents in his Senate office on Wednesday. In a statement, he said those parents “along with countless other families affected by gun violence, will remain in my prayers.

“I remain hopeful my colleagues will rally around common-sense, bipartisan solutions to reduce gun violence while protecting Second Amendment rights.” But Kirk’s amendment – also sponsored by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. – failed a few hours later.

Claire McCaskill
Claire McCaskill

At a Homeland Security committee hearing before the gun votes, McCaskill made the argument that – if the Boston bombing is regarded as an act of terror – one could argue that the Sandy Hook School massacre was in the same category.

“Based on the evidence at this point, is there any difference between Sandy Hook and Boston other than the choice of weapon?” McCaskill asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

While Napolitano conceded that the methodology could be compared, she said she did not think the two attacks were parallel “in terms of intent for death and destruction and injury . . . we don’t know the motivation behind, certainly, Boston – we don’t know whether it was domestic, it’s international ...”

McCaskill interjected: “Or if it was identical to the motivation in Sandy Hook.” Noting that “we are so quick to call Boston terror,” the senator added: “Why aren’t we calling the man with the high-capacity assault weapon and the high-capacity magazine, why aren’t we calling him a terrorist?”

Roy Blunt
Roy Blunt

After the votes, Blunt said he wanted to protect the Second Amedment rights of Missourians. He cosponsored and voted for a GOP-led alternative to the Manchin-Kirk background-check measure. (McCaskill voted for both the Manchin-Kirk version and the Republican alternative.)

Blunt said that Republican version, introduced by Grassley, would have reauthorized and altered the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS); increased resources for prosecutions of gun crime; addressed mental illness in the criminal justice system, and included straw purchasing and illegal firearm trafficking statutes in federal criminal law.

“We must do everything we can to prevent tragedies like those that took place in Newtown, Aurora, or Tucson, without restricting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Blunt said in a statement. He also backs bills to strength mental-health programs.

In her statement, McCaskill said she was disappointed in the votes. "I believed the massacre of 20 small children would be a tipping point in the debate over how to reasonably address gun safety in this country-when our collective horror and subsequent outrage would move Congress to enact commonsense protections that would make all of our families safer."

Durbin vowed afterwards that "this is not the end" in the push for tougher laws to help prevent gun violence. 

"To the families and victims of the shootings in Newtown, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and the victims of gun violence in cities and towns like Chicago and East St. Louis across America – You deserved better than what you got today," Durbin said. 

"But we’re not done fighting. We didn’t have the votes we needed to overcome a filibuster today, but America, with your help we will get this common sense reform done.” 

Obama also pledged to keep up the fight. “I want to make it clear to the American people we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence, so long as the American people don’t give up on it,” Obama said.

“Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities.  We’re going to address the barriers that prevent states from participating in the existing background check system.  We’re going to give law enforcement more information about lost and stolen guns so it can do its job.  We’re going to help to put in place emergency plans to protect our children in their schools.” 

The president continued: “But we can do more if Congress gets its act together.  And if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.” 

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