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Senate Ready to Debate Gun Legislation

Family members of Newtown shooting victims step off Air Force One with US President Barack Obama (2nd R) upon arrival April 8, 2013 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The family members traveled to Washington, DC with Obama to lobby for gun control. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Four months after the deaths of 20 first-graders and six of their teachers at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Senate on Thursday will begin debate on legislative proposals aimed at curbing gun violence.

The issue comes to the Senate floor after threats from Republican lawmakers to block the measure were quelled when other GOP senators criticized their plan to filibuster the bill, and after President Barack Obama flew family members of the Dec. 14 shooting victims to the nation’s capitol on Air Force One.

In the days following the shooting, lawmakers from both parties expressed resolve to enact legislation aimed at preventing mass shootings, but in recent weeks, lawmakers seem less likely to develop consensus on what should be done. According to public opinion polls, nine out of 10 Americans support some efforts to strengthen America’s gun laws.

Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013

Before Congress left the nation’s capitol for it’s two-week Easter recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013. The bill features three titles: the Fix Gun Checks Act, the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act and the School and Campus Safety Enhancements Act.

– The Fix Guns Check Act would require individuals prohibited from buying a gun to be listed on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). It also would require a background check for every firearm sale, with the exception of exchanges between immediate family members.

  • Naming teen victims of gun violence Hadiya Pendleton and Nyasia Pryear-Yard, the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act, makes “straw purchasing” illegal. The proposal prohibits anyone from purchasing a firearm for someone else.

  • Finally, the Schools and Campus Safety Enhancement Act would appropriate funding to establish a task force to develop and implement safety guidelines for schools.

Reid Open to Amendments

The bill features proposals that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed in March. But, it doesn’t include a controversial ban on more than 150 assault-style weapons and ammunition feeding devices capable of accepting more than 10 rounds, championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., which passed on a 10-8 party-line vote. Reid told Feinstein he wanted to introduce a bill that could obtain “60 votes.” He told Feinstein and other lawmakers that they can introduce additional measures as amendments to his bill.

Framing it as a bipartisan compromise, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Wednesday announced The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, a bill that would expand background checks to firearms sold at gun shows and online, require the addition of those prohibited from owning a firearm to NCIS and create a commission to study mass violence.

Manchin and Toomey are on opposite sides of the political aisle, but the lawmakers of neighboring states said in a press conference this week that their constituents maintain a view that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to individual gun ownership.

“We have a culture of violence and basically, we have a whole generation that’s been desensitized. … We’ve got to find out how we can change and reverse that. … We also need to protect legal gun owners,” Manchin said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, backs this approach.

“I want to thank Senators Manchin and Toomey for their determination to find common ground on a bill that Democrats and Republicans can fully support,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “Our bipartisan coalition of more than 900 mayors strongly supports this bill and looks forward to working with other leaders, including Senators Schumer and Kirk who have worked tirelessly on this issue, to do all we can to ensure its passage.”

Interest among other lawmakers to submit amendments to the bill suggests that the gun debate may turn into a protracted discussion this spring.

“I’ve had Mark Begich and others come to me. They’ve got something on mental health. Manchin’s been working this for a long time on background checks. … Blumenthal has a very forward-leaning proposal that he’s worked with Senator Lautenberg on the size of and capacity of clips and magazines. There are all kinds of things that can be done with amendments to this bill,” Reid said.

Filibuster Averted

More than a dozen Senate Republicans including Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah vowed to block the bill from being scheduled for a floor hearing.

“We should look for ways to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill prone to misusing them, but I oppose legislation that will be used as a vehicle to impose new Second Amendment restrictions on responsible, law-abiding gun owners,” Rubio said in a March 28 statement.

Sen. John McCain, R-Az., on a Sunday morning talk show scolded the lawmakers for their plan. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and member of the Judiciary Committee, voted against the gun proposals, but said that said he wouldn’t join the filibuster. After an April 8 speech in Connecticut, Mr. Obama flew eleven family members of the Sandy Hook shootings to Washington, D.C., on Air Force One.

Over the past four months Mr. Obama has traveled the country to raise support for proposals he introduced in the days leading up to his second inauguration.

Meanwhile, local officials including police officials and mayors along with gun violence survivors and their families have advocated for new legislation. The National Rifle Association has proposed placing armed security personnel at every school along with a national gun safety campaign.

First Lady Michelle Obama choked back tears Thursday during a 10 speech on gun violence as she described speaking at the funeral of Pendleton, a 15-year-old from Chicago, who days before being killed, performed in the parade marking the president’s second term in office.

Even as the drumbeat to pass new gun laws on the national level has gotten quieter during the months since the Newtown shooting, several states, including Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland have passed new restrictions on gun sales. At the same time, other states including Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, have enacted legislation that relaxes restrictions on where permit owners can carry their weapons.


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