Gun control debate goes silent in the Senate – for now

04/18/2013 4:28 PM

10/17/2013 4:43 PM

Congressional efforts to pass or even debate serious gun-control legislation are over for the foreseeable future.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the legislation aside Thursday as it became clear that gun control forces lacked the votes to pass major measures they sought.

The Nevada Democrat said he’d spoken to President Barack Obama and they agreed that “the best way to keep working toward passing a background check bill is to hit a pause and freeze the background check bill where it is.”

Reid vowed to fight another day. “Make no mistake: This debate is not over. This is not the end of the fight,” he said.

But it is for now, thanks to a series of stinging defeats Wednesday. Gun control forces lost bids to ban assault weapons, limit the size of ammunition clips and, most disappointing to them, strengthen the background check system.

As a result, major gun-control votes aren’t expected anytime soon. The Senate plans to leave April 26 for a nine-day spring recess. It might consider measures in May, but chances are that’s too soon to expect votes to switch or deals to be negotiated.

June is likely to be consumed with immigration issues, and senators are expected to be engaged in budget fights in July. They’ll leave Aug. 3 for a summer recess, and they don’t plan to return until Sept. 9.

The Republican-led House of Representatives is unlikely to take the initiative. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio offered only vague assurances Thursday.

“Our committees are going to continue to look at the violence in our society and look at these tragedies and determine whether there are common-sense steps that we can take to reduce the chances of this,” he said.

This much was clear Thursday: Gun control interests remained staggered by the Wednesday votes. They had the most hope for a carefully written compromise that would expand background checks, only to have it fall six votes short.

They spoke Thursday of how changes might be made or new pressure applied, particularly to Republicans who represent urban areas.

Reid vowed to return to the issue, and he said new amendments would be considered on a variety of topics, including mental health and background checks.

“We’re going to have time to work on what people want to do before we come back to this,” he said.

One key Republican, Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, indicated that he was reluctant to begin efforts to fashion a new background-check compromise. He and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., were architects of the unsuccessful background-check plan.

“The Senate has spoken,” said Toomey, one of four Republicans who voted for the plan. “It’s not obvious how to move forward. I gave it my best shot.”

Alaska Sens. Mark Begich, a Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, voted against the effort to extend background checks to gun shows and online sales. They supported an alternative that would increase the number of mental health records entered into the federal background-check database.

Murkowski said Alaskans were heavily against the proposal.

“The system we have now, we should be focused on how to fix it before people start thinking, ‘Let’s just expand it and make people feel better,’ ” Begich said. “Really what we should be doing is fixing a broken system.”

The thinking among Democratic leaders was that they now could apply pressure two ways. First, point out, as Reid put it, “Republicans are in an unsustainable position: crosswise with 9 out of 10 Americans.” Polls find overwhelming support for most background checks.

Second, fight harder against gun interests. Obama is leading that charge, and senators vowed Thursday to apply new public pressure in the form of ads, lobbying and other means to convince colleagues that some kinds of limits on gun use and sales are imperative.

“Our job is to spread awareness, spread the rage that we feel,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Manchin agreed, saying that the more the gun lobby’s credibility comes under fire, the better it will be for gun control advocates. Asked why more pressure wasn’t applied this week, particularly by the White House, Manchin said he wasn’t in touch with the White House. And, he said, the process moves slowly.

“The more the American public knows, the better it will be for us,” he said.

Gun rights supporters bristled at the notion that they were beholden to the gun lobby. “I and many of my colleagues are not worried . . . about the gun lobby,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. “I don’t work for them. I work for Texans.”

The Senate did pass two uncontroversial amendments to the gun bill. One, pushed by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would withhold 5 percent of a state or local government’s money for the Community Oriented Policing Services program if the state released information about people who have licenses to purchase, possess or carry firearms.

The other amendment would reauthorize certain mental health programs, including those involving aid to college students and suicide prevention.

Sean Cockerham contributed to this article.

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