Gun control supporters in the US Senate have won the first showdown over how to respond to the December school shootings in Connecticut, defeating an effort by conservatives to derail firearms restrictions before debate could even start.
The 68-31 vote on Thursday gave an early burst of momentum to efforts by President Barack Obama and lawmakers to push fresh but modest gun curbs through Congress. The National Rifle Association, the top gun advocacy group, along with many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, says the proposals go too far.
The Senate turns to the heart of the battle over curbing gun violence next Tuesday, when it considers a proposal to expand required federal background checks to gun shows and online firearms sales. Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he thinks the debate will last weeks. The road to congressional approval of major restrictions remains difficult, particularly in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where there is strong opposition.
The vote came four months after a gunman killed 20 young children and six employees at a Connecticut school, spurring Mr Obama and legislators to attempt to address firearms violence. Congress has not approved sweeping gun restrictions since enacting an assault weapons ban 19 years ago, a prohibition that lawmakers failed to renew a decade later.
Expanded background checks of gun buyers are at the core of the latest Democrat-led gun control drive. Other top proposals - including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines - will be offered as amendments during Senate debate but seem destined for defeat.
Background checks currently apply only to transactions handled by the country's 55,000 licensed gun dealers. Advocates of expanding the system say too many sales - the exact proportion is unknown - escape the checks, which are supposed to keep weapons from going to criminals, the seriously mentally ill, and others.
"The hard work starts now," Mr Reid, a Democrat, said after the vote. As he spoke, relatives of the school shooting victims watching from the visitors' gallery above the Senate floor wiped away tears and held hands, and some seemed to pray. On Thursday, 50 Democrats, 16 Republicans and two independents opposed the conservative effort, while 29 Republicans and two Democrats supported it. Gun control supporters needed 60 votes to block the conservatives.
The vote opened the door to an emotion-laden debate on the legislation, which would subject more firearms buyers to federal background checks, strengthen laws against illicit gun trafficking and increase school safety aid. Advocates say the measures would make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get weapons.
Opponents argue that the restrictions would violate the US Constitution's right to bear arms and would be ignored by criminals. Despite their defeat, conservatives were threatening to invoke a procedural rule forcing the Senate to wait 30 hours before it could begin considering amendments.
Before the vote, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who was supporting the conservative effort to block debate, said the legislation would restrict the constitutionally protected rights of relatives and friends to sell firearms to each other. "This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbours, friends, and family," McConnell said.