WASHINGTON — The Senate is ready to launch an emotion-charged debate on new gun restrictions, four months after the carnage at a Connecticut elementary school spurred President Barack Obama and Congress to address firearms violence.
In an opening showdown Thursday, senators were scheduled to vote on an attempt by conservatives to scuttle the Democratic 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.
The roll call was coming a day after two leading conservatives, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., unveiled a compromise to extend required federal background checks to gun shows and online transactions. Only noncommercial, personal transactions would be exempted.
That deal was expected to give gun control forces an initial burst of momentum as debate begins. But the National Rifle Association, along with many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, opposes fresh gun curbs as going too far, and the road to congressional approval of major restrictions remains rocky.
“Those two leaders stepping up is a very good way to start,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is seeking re-election next year and has stressed her support for both the right to bear arms and reducing gun bloodshed. “How it ends, I don’t know.”
In December, a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. 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.
Expanded background checks are the core of the Democratic 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.
The compromise between Toomey and Manchin, both owners of guns and “A” ratings from the NRA, was likely to improve the prospects that the Senate might expand background checks by attracting broader support. But debate could last weeks and it was not known what amendments to the overall bill, either constricting or expanding gun rights, senators might approve.
Neither Toomey nor Manchin predicted the Senate would approve gun legislation and both said their vote on final passage would depend on what the measure looked like when debate ends. Manchin said he would vote against the overall legislation if his compromise with Toomey was defeated.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the first amendment will be to add the Manchin-Toomey compromise to the legislation. It would replace stricter language extending background checks to virtually all gun sales.
The senators’ agreement also has language increasing firearms rights. That includes easing some restrictions on transporting guns across state lines, protecting sellers from lawsuits if buyers passed a check but later used a firearm in a crime and letting gun dealers conduct business in states where they don’t live.
Underscoring the difficult path gun curbs face in the GOP-run House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeated his plan to wait for the Senate to produce something and pointedly noted that the background check agreement had yet to pass Senate muster.
“It’s one thing for two members to come to some agreement. It doesn’t substitute the will for the other 98 members,” he told reporters.
Emotion, always prominent in the gun issue, cropped up late Wednesday when Manchin met with relatives of the Newtown victims in his Senate office, telling them “this will not be in vain.” He became choked up when a reporter asked about the impact of the family members’ visit, saying, “I’m a parent, a grandparent … and I had to do something.”
Said Toomey: “Criminals and the dangerously mentally ill shouldn’t have guns. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that premise.” He said expanding the checks wasn’t gun control, “just common sense.”
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.
In a written statement, Obama 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 NRA 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.
In a letter to senators late Wednesday, NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox warned that the organization would include lawmakers’ votes on the Manchin-Toomey deal and other amendments it opposes in the candidate ratings it sends to its members and supporters.