WASHINGTON — Maine’s two U.S. senators voted with the majority Thursday to move forward with debate on a package of gun-control measures prompted by December’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.
The 68-31 vote was the first major hurdle for gun-control advocates who are pushing a series of proposals in a sharply divided Congress. Family members of the victims in Newtown, Conn., watched from the Senate galleries as lawmakers voted to end a conservative-led filibuster, clearing the way for votes on individual proposals.
The vote ran along party lines, with 50 Democrats, 16 Republicans and two independents voting to move forward with debate, while 29 Republicans and two Democrats voted to continue the filibuster. The Senate later adjourned for the weekend while behind-the-scenes negotiations continued.
“The hard work starts now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., immediately after the vote.
Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins was among the 16 Republicans who broke with most of her party and voted to end the filibuster. Maine’s Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted to allow debate.
King described the initial vote as “a big one” and said he hopes senators will continue to allow debate on the individual proposals.
“At least it allows us to move forward and take up the legislation,” King said. “We were sent here to make these decisions, not avoid them procedurally.”
The proposals pending in the Senate include:
• A significant expansion of mandatory background checks for gun purchases.
• New federal laws on gun trafficking.
• Additional resources to enhance school safety.
• Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Advocates say the measures would make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get weapons. Opponents say the restrictions would violate the Constitution’s right to bear arms and would be ignored by criminals.
“This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends and family,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., according to The Associated Press.
Thursday’s vote came nearly four months after 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed by a lone gunman. Family members of the victims met with King in his Senate office just before the vote and then went with him to the Capitol, where they watched the floor action from the galleries.
“It was very sobering,” King said of the meeting.
He said that he and the victims’ family members agreed on all of the major policy points, including that the proposed ban on the type of assault rifle that was used at Newtown would not be effective. The family members — some fighting back tears — did not speak to the media after the vote.
The next Senate vote will be on a compromise, introduced Wednesday, to extend mandatory background checks to all gun purchases at gun shows and online, including person-to-person sales. Under current federal and Maine law, background checks are required only for transactions by licensed gun dealers.
The compromise, negotiated by the conservative, gun-friendly Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, set up Thursday’s vote.
The text of their amendment on background checks was still not publicly available Thursday. However, two people with close knowledge of it told the Portland Press Herald that the proposal would, for the first time, require background checks for person-to-person sales that are advertised online and in printed publications such as the popular Augusta-based swap magazine Uncle Henry’s.
Private gun sales are common in Maine, a rural state with a relatively large number of guns and one of the nation’s lowest rates of gun violence.
Police and prosecutors in Massachusetts say that Maine’s more lax gun policies help feed gun crimes in their state, whose gun laws are among the nation’s most stringent.
The Toomey-Manchin compromise would:
• Require background checks for private sales at or outside gun shows.
• Exempt transactions between family members, friends and neighbors.
• Threaten states with financial penalties for failing to report mental health records to the FBI.
• Allow concealed-weapons permit holders to forgo background checks if their permits are less than five years old.
• Allow active-duty military personnel to buy firearms in their home states and where they are stationed.
• Establish a national commission to investigate the causes of mass shootings.
• Explicitly prohibit the creation of a “national registry” of gun owners.
Collins and King have been heavily lobbied by both sides in the gun debate. Collins, a co-sponsor of the measure to create stronger federal prohibitions on gun trafficking, called the background check compromise “very promising” but said she must review the language before endorsing it.
King did not explicitly endorse the deal but described it as “great news.”
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