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Senators reach deal to expand background checks on gun buyers

April 10, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli | This post has been updated, as indicated below.

WASHINGTON -- Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on Wednesday announced a compromise on the centerpiece of gun legislation the Senate is to begin deliberating later this week -- an expansion of background checks that will cover most commercial gun sales.

“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control. I think it’s just common sense,” Toomey said at a news conference, explaining that keeping guns from criminals and the dangerously mentally ill was the right thing to do. “Background checks are not a cure-all, but they can be helpful.”

Months of negotiations between Manchin and another Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, moved slowly and eventually stalemated last week. Coburn’s main objection was the insistence of Manchin and other Democrats that record-keeping requirements under current law be extended to cover the additional transactions that would be subject to background check requirements.

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Toomey emerged late last week as the lead negotiator among a handful of Republicans that Manchin had been briefing throughout the talks. Negotiations continued well into the early morning hours Wednesday to finalize the language, after senators announced that they were within reach of a deal and the threat of a Republican filibuster to block consideration of any gun proposals appeared to fizzle.

A source close to the negotiations said the proposal meets most, though not all, of the objectives the White House had called for in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Background check requirements would be extended to include nearly all gun sales, including those at gun shows and on the Internet. There would be just a few exceptions for certain private transactions.

All sales subject to the expanded checks would also be subject to current record-keeping requirements, a key demand of gun-control advocates and more liberal Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the author of a broader background-check measure that will now likely be dropped for the Manchin-Toomey proposal.

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Though the burst of momentum for gun legislation may not last, it has for the moment forced opponents to recalibrate their strategy. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who helped orchestrate an alliance with a dozen conservatives in hopes of blocking the Senate from even beginning consideration of the bills, canceled a news conference Wednesday morning that was meant to highlight the group’s plans.

Instead, their focus may turn to trying to block a final vote on whatever legislation emerges from the process of amending the larger gun package over the coming days.

“The main goal here is to prevent violation of 2nd Amendment rights and encourage legislation to instead focus on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Texas Republican who said he would do whatever was needed to achieve that end.

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That was also the recommendation of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which echoed the concerns of other conservative voices that criticized the filibuster effort. “It makes no sense to paint themselves into a political box canyon before even knowing what they're voting on,” the Journal editors wrote.

The Manchin-Toomey compromise will likely be one of the first amendments the Senate considers when it is expected to take up gun-control legislation on Thursday. The bill also includes measures to increase school safety and to combat gun trafficking.

A proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ban sales of certain assault weapons will also be offered as an amendment. Republicans will also have an opportunity to offer amendments.

[Updated, 8:45 a.m. April 10: The background check measure would close the current loophole for sales at gun shows. For gun shows, it would allow sales to proceed if a background check is not completed within 48 hours. Under the measure that time limit would decrease to 24 hours after four years.

Transfers of guns between family members and some private sales, such as between family members and neighbors, would be exempt from the background check requirement, under the proposal. Gun sellers would also be protected from lawsuits if a weapon bought after a check is used in a crime.

In a statement, the National Rifle Association said that 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.”

“The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedies in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson. We need a serious and meaningful solution that addresses crime in cities like Chicago, addresses mental health deficiencies, while at the same time protecting the rights of those of us who are not a danger to anyone,” the gun rights group said.

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