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Amendments for Background Checks and Assault Weapons Ban Fail in Senate

April 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Proposed amendments for assault weapons and high capacity magazine bans and universal background checks failed to pass the Senate. Kwame Holman reports. Then, Gwen Ifill gets two perspectives on why Senate failed to pass the proposals from National Shooting Sports Foundation's Lawrence Keane and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The campaign for new curbs on guns ran into Senate opposition today that it could not overcome; 41 Republicans joined with five Democrats to kill the proposal that was thought to have the best chance of passing.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.Va.: This bill protects honest gun-loving, law-abiding citizens more than any piece of legislation we have had in the last two to three decades. And I think that people who’ve read the bill know that.

KWAME HOLMAN: West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin made a final impassioned plea with his Senate colleagues to support expanded background checks of would-be gun buyers at gun shows and online.

JOE MANCHIN: I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics. I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time in public service, a time when you have the ability to stand when you know the facts are on your side and walk into the lion’s den, and look that lion in the eye, and tell that lion, listen, not today, not today.

KWAME HOLMAN: The proposal on background checks was put forward by Manchin and by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. It headlined a list of nine amendments to a broader gun control measure.

They included provisions offered by Democrats to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and a Republican-sponsored measure that says states must honor concealed firearm permits from other states.

That amendment was authored by John Cornyn of Texas.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: But a concealed handgun license is like a background check on steroids. It’s far more intrusive into the privacy and the background of a person who applies for a handgun license. So, it ought to be something — this standard ought to be one that those who support a robust background check regime could also support.

KWAME HOLMAN: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, meanwhile, spoke in favor of the assault weapons ban she introduced.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: I do not believe that our values are stronger because we allow individuals to own weapons designed for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible.

KWAME HOLMAN: But South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said the measures being touted by President Obama and most Democrats would do little to reduce gun violence.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: The president wanted three things done. He wanted to ban assault weapons. He wanted to limit magazine size — sizes. And he wanted to impose a universal background check. Well, all three of those concepts are going to be on the floor of the United States Senate for a vote, and they’re all going to lose. Why? Because they’re not the solution to the problem we all face.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: On this vote, the yeas are 54, the nays are 46.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, as Vice President Biden presided, the background check amendment failed to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to pass. The concealed firearm measure and the ban on assault weapons also failed. But late in the day, Senate Democrats joined by family members of victims of gun violence pledged to keep up the fight.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: I want everyone to understand this is just the beginning. This is not the end. The forces at work to defeat this amendment became so obsessed with defeating any commonsense reforms whatsoever; they lost sight of the big picture.

KWAME HOLMAN: And President Obama spoke minutes later from the White House Rose Garden.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No single piece of legislation can stop every act of violence and evil. We learned that tragically just two days ago.

But if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand, if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future, while preserving our Second Amendment rights, we had an obligation to try. And this legislation met that test. And too many senators failed theirs.

KWAME HOLMAN: This was just the first day of voting. But after the string of defeats for gun control advocates, the fate of the overall bill was unclear.

GWEN IFILL: For more on what led up to the Senate action, we turn to two voices.

Lawrence Keane is senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry.

Thank you for joining us. We had thought — we had heard from this bipartisan agreement that Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, this Democrat and the Republican, came up with on background checks, that this was finally the grand bargain. But it wasn’t. What happened to that?

LAWRENCE KEANE, National Shooting Sports Foundation: Well, I think that there was never really enough votes, as we saw today, to pass their proposal.

And, you know, we believe that Sen. Manchin’s intentions were honest, and he’s not trying to infringe upon Second Amendment rights or anything like that. The problem we had from the industry’s point of view with the legislation is that the bill prioritized background checks for gun shows over those taking place at storefront retailers, and that just wouldn’t work for our members.

And we represent thousands and thousands of firearms retailers, and so we thought that was a problem. And actually it was even worse than that, because the way the language was drafted, it would require that all background checks at gun shows had to be completed before you could do a background check from a storefront FFL dealer.

And so that would shut down background checks on weekends for storefront dealers. That is unacceptable for our members.

GWEN IFILL: You heard what Sen. Graham just said, that the president had pushed for three things on gun control, and that’s on the assault weapons ban, on this background check, and also — I knew I was going to forget the third one, but …

LAWRENCE KEANE: Banning …

… sporting rifles, banning …

GWEN IFILL: Magazines.

LAWRENCE KEANE: … magazines and universal background checks, correct.

GWEN IFILL: You won on all three of those grounds. Why? And is there any gun control or this sort of gun control effort that you would support?

LAWRENCE KEANE: Well, I think it’s important that we oppose bans on modern sporting rifles. They’re the most popular rifles being sold in the United States today. Roughly half the people that buy them are current or former members of the military or law enforcement. They buy them for legitimate purposes, primarily for target shooting and increasingly to go hunting.

Members of the United States Senate and Congress own those firearms. Paul Ryan, for example, owns one of those and goes hunting with them. So …

GWEN IFILL: That one was a forgone conclusion before, as were the magazine clips.

LAWRENCE KEANE: Right.

GWEN IFILL: But the background checks, not so much.

LAWRENCE KEANE: Well, our concern with the universal background checks is we think that the problem we see is that you have to fix the NICS system.

The background checks system we have now is broken. And that’s why our industry thinks that the first thing you need to do is fix the NICS system, which is why our industry is funding an initiative to work at the grassroots level, to work with the states that are falling down on the jobs and not getting the background checks — getting the information into the background check system.

The system is only as good as the information that’s in it, and background checks that are incomplete and inaccurate don’t help anybody. Having more of those background checks that are incomplete also doesn’t help anybody.

GWEN IFILL: But, as far as you’re concerned, even though the president — or I guess it was Harry Reid said this is just round one — both of them said it — you think for the federal level this argument is over?

LAWRENCE KEANE: No, I don’t think so at all.

I met with Sen. Reid today and Sen. Manchin. And so we believe that this is — that the discussion is not over, and we don’t believe the discussion should be over. The dialogue should continue.

Look, we all share the goal of wanting to make our communities safer, but reasonable minds can and do disagree about how best to achieve that. We don’t agree with banning firearms or banning magazines or having so-called universal background checks, which are opposed by 86 percent of the firearms retailers in the United States.

And the president’s proposals are also not supported by the men and women in law enforcement. Over 85 percent of the men and women in law enforcement do not support the president’s proposal.

GWEN IFILL: But the president says 90 percent of Americans support it.

LAWRENCE KEANE: Well, I think you have — I don’t know that they understand exactly what is meant by universal background checks.

But from our point of view, from the industry’s point of view, the problem is that you have to fix the NICS system first. So, we like some of the provisions that were in — and we told Sen. Manchin and Sen. Toomey we like some of the provisions that were in his amendment.

We also — similar provisions were in Sen. Grassley’s proposal. We supported Senator Grassley’s proposal. We think there can be common ground on things like fixing NICS and on getting the records into the system and providing resources for mental health, but we think that the common denominator in a number of these recent high-profile shootings is the mental health of the shooter.

And they’re not getting the treatment they needed. They’re not in the system. Or if they’re the system, the records aren’t showing up in the background checks.

GWEN IFILL: One Democrat who voted against this background check plan today, when he was asked — he’s – Sen. Max Baucus was asked, why did you vote again it? And he said Montana, which is his home state, very red state, and the president said this was all about politics.

How much of this was about the contents of this legislation and how much of it was about pure politics, you can’t do it and go home and get reelected?

LAWRENCE KEANE: Well, I think that’s — look, it’s Washington. The politics is always part of the discussion.

But for the industry, it’s about the policy. We think the focus needs to be on fixing NICS. That’s why we have our initiative. And we think the other part of it is that we need to address the mental health problems in this country. We think that that is an important issue that there’s common ground on.

That’s why we — and we think we need the enforcement of the law. Part of the problem we see is that the background checks that occur now under current law, the people that fail it aren’t being prosecuted. If you expand to so-called universal background checks, if you don’t prosecute the people that fail the background checks, what’s the point?

GWEN IFILL: Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, thank you so much for coming in.

LAWRENCE KEANE: It’s a pleasure to spend time with you.

And now we’re joined by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who is a Democrat from Connecticut. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

Sen. Blumenthal, there were members of the families from Newtown in the gallery today as this vote happened. What was the reaction?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-Conn.: Today was heartbreaking for me, really sad and shocking, but the hardest part of it was to try to explain to those families how 90 percent of the American people could be in favor of background checks, criminal background checks for all firearms purchases, and the Senate failed to reach the necessary 60 votes.

And their reaction was absolutely inspiring. As one of them said to me — when I said, we’re coming back, she said to me, it’s not even close. We’re coming back. Not even close.

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean, coming back? After you failed to get the 60 votes necessary on not only this, but also on a number of other pieces of gun control legislation today, what does coming back look like?

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Coming back looks like persuading colleagues that the American people are not just in favor of background checks, illegal trafficking bans, and stronger school safety measures, along with a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but the American people are going to hold the Senate accountable and answerable between now and Election Day and on Election Day.

So I think that the resoluteness and resilience of the families has to be shown by elected leaders here. And if they show an ounce of courage that these families have shown, they will vote for these measures the next time around.

And the leader, Majority Leader Reid, has indicated there’s no question that we will have more votes.

GWEN IFILL: But, Senator, you pulled out all the stops this time. We saw the Newtown families making the rounds face to face, meeting with senators. The president came out numerous time and showed his passion, went to Connecticut, met with the families, brought them here on Air Force One, and yet you were not able to persuade enough of your colleagues this time around.

What will be different?

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Gwen, four months ago, this issue was thought to be politically untouchable.

And just about a week ago, the goal of 60 votes to continue the debate was thought to be unreachable. There has been a seismic change in the political landscape, and it is still changing. So I think there is the real possibility that people are going to be listening to constituents back home who will learn for the first time that a majority of votes in the Senate isn’t good enough to get action.

And that is a fundamental indictment of our democracy to say that 55 or 54 votes in the United States Senate to save lives and make our neighborhoods safer and keep faith with the families of Newtown, as well as the 3,400 other victims of gun violence since then, is not enough to seek and get action.

And I will just say one other thing. You know, what you have just heard about improving the NICS system, absolutely right. There is common ground here. We do need to improve the amount and accuracy of information going into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

It’s the lifeblood of the background checks that are used to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. But we can do that and improve the background checks so as to cover all firearm purchases. We can have more prosecution.

I’m a former prosecutor. I was the United States attorney for four-and-a-half years in Connecticut and then the attorney general of our state for 20 years. So I believe in more prosecutions.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, I guess I understand what you’re saying. But I have heard you say it before and others say it before. I’m trying to figure out how the arguments or the dispute here is any different than it has been in past years when you have brought gun legislation to the fore.

It hasn’t — it’s been rolled back, and then you have gone back to your corners and nothing else has happened. The president seemed frustrated today, but I’m not quite certain how you change minds.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: This time, we’re not going back to our corners, if that’s happened in the past.

Certainly, what you heard today from two of the highest leaders in our country are a resoluteness and determination that perhaps hasn’t been present before. And, tragically, Gwen, we will have more killings. We will have more mass shootings. They will result from assault weapons and from high-capacity magazines.

But, most important, they will result from criminals having their hands on these weapons of war, not only the assault weapons, but also handguns and other weapons that have to be kept out of their hands.

GWEN IFILL: Let me judge you what I just asked Lawrence Keane from the shooters association. How much of this is simply pure politics?

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: You know, there were some profiles in courage today on the floor of the United States Senate.

There were also some folks who maybe were a little bit more fearful and apprehensive than they need to be, because the special interests here have managed to mobilize a small, vehement, vocal part of the population, some concentrated in some states.

But at the end of the day, it takes a majority to win an election, and I think they’re going to hear from the majority.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you for joining us.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.