The US Senate is ready to launch an emotion-charged debate on new gun restrictions, four months after the carnage at a Connecticut primary school spurred President Barack Obama and Congress to address firearms violence.
In an opening showdown on Thursday, senators were scheduled to vote on an attempt by conservatives to scuttle the bill before debate even started. There were no real doubts the conservatives would be defeated and lawmakers would turn to the legislation, which would expand background checks to more gun buyers, toughen penalties against illicit firearms sales and offer slightly more money for school security.
But even if the expanded background checks pass the Senate they will likely face an even tougher time in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. With that defeat imminent, conservatives were saying they would invoke a rule forcing the Senate to wait 30 hours before it could begin considering amendments.
"Let's get on the bill," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, as senators prepared for the vote. He said lawmakers had to try preventing criminals and the mentally ill from getting firearms, adding: "This bill won't stop every madman determined to take innocent lives. I know that, we all know that."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, was supporting the conservative effort, saying 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," Senator McConnell said.
The compromise on background checks that cleared the way for the vote was worked out by senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Patrick Toomey, a Republican. It would extend these federal checks to gun shows and online transactions but exempt non-commercial, personal transactions. Background checks currently apply only to transactions handled by the country's 55,000 licensed gun dealers.
The bill is a far cry from President Obama's call to ban assault rifles and the high capacity magazines that leave shooters able to fire large bursts of ammunition without having to reload. While these issues will be raised during the debate, neither has any chance of being included in the legislation. In a written statement, the president said, "This is not my bill," adding that he wished the agreement was stronger. Still, he praised it as significant progress, saying: "We don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence."
Gun control groups gave the deal warm but not effusive praise, noting that unknown details and some pro-gun provisions gave them pause. The nation's powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, said it opposed the agreement. "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," it said in a statement.
The bipartisan deal is expected to give gun control advocates a bit of momentum as debate begins. But many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, oppose even these gun curbs as going too far.
In December, a gunman killed 20 young children and six members of staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Relatives of some victims were at the Capitol pressing lawmakers to back gun restrictions, and were holding a vigil outside the building where they were reading the names of recent victims of gun violence.