WASHINGTON – Nearly four months after the shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six others in Connecticut, the Senate moved closer Wednesday to a vote on a package of gun-related legislation, in a turnaround for supporters of new gun restrictions whose efforts have faltered in recent weeks.
It took bipartisan negotiations between two senators with impeccable gun-rights credentials to put the vote within reach.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced Wednesday a proposal to extend background checks to gun shows and online sales. Their compromise falls short of the universal measure gun control advocates sought because it would exempt private transactions between friends and family members.
But the Manchin-Toomey measure, while not expected to overcome all opposition, could prove palatable enough to a number of Republicans, and some Democrats from rural and conservative states, to secure passage.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” said Toomey, a former president of the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political group. “It’s common sense.”
Manchin, a conservative Democrat and former West Virginia governor, said that “no one in good conscience” could stand by and do nothing after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. Recent polls show that close to 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks.
Manchin said the proposal protects law-abiding gun owners “like myself and Pat.” Both have “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, a politically influential pro-gun group. Manchin said his constituents told him they could support background checks with exceptions along the lines of his proposal.
In the Republican-led House of Representatives, where even more resistance to gun control legislation is likely, another bipartisan pair of lawmakers said Wednesday that they planned to introduce a similar measure.
“Background checks on firearm purchases are the first line of defense against criminals and the dangerously mentally ill getting guns,” Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in a statement. “This legislation is enforceable, it will save lives, and it respects the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”
The momentum this week toward a possible agreement on a gun control measure is a distinct change from how the issue was faring last month. It comes after a two-week legislative recess when lawmakers were back home and presumably heard feedback from constituents. It could be that changed some minds, or the calculus of the Manchin-Toomey collaboration offered political cover, or a little bit of both.
But the issue was gaining attention this week. Newtown families quietly circulated on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to act. First lady Michele Obama gave a speech in Chicago against gun violence, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leading gun control advocate, said he would develop a public scorecard on how lawmakers vote on gun legislation.
President Barack Obama, as part of his 2014 budget, proposed Wednesday an expansion of mental health services, with a $130 million initiative to help teachers recognize signs of mental illness. He also called for $30 million to support a nationwide mental health surveillance system and additional research on the causes and prevention of gun violence.