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Senate votes to consider gun control laws

In a setback for gun rights advocates, 16 Republicans join most Democrats to allow debate on stricter laws, including higher penalties for selling guns to felons and funding for school security.

April 11, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Erica Lafferty, left, and Jillian Soto, who both lost family members in the Newtown shooting, urge Congress to pass tougher gun laws at a Capitol Hill news conference with, from left, Sens. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Erica Lafferty, left, and Jillian Soto, who both lost family members in… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — In a lopsided vote, the Senate launched a debate Thursday over the most significant gun legislation in more than a decade, setting up a contest that could last weeks between reinvigorated advocates for stricter laws and conservatives who oppose them as a violation of the 2nd Amendment.

The bipartisan 68-31 vote, which saw 16 Republicans join 52 Democrats and independents to begin consideration of gun legislation, was a setback for gun rights advocates who had threatened to block it.

The bill includes provisions to spend more on school security and to increase penalties for selling guns to felons and others banned from ownership.

On Wednesday, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) announced a bipartisan proposal that would require background checks for almost all sales to ensure guns are not sold to prohibited buyers, a compromise that significantly bolstered the bill's chances.

In the gallery overlooking the Senate floor sat family members of victims of last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, some of whom were overcome with emotion when the result was announced.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the lobbying effort made by those families — who flew to Washington this week on Air Force One with President Obama — helped clear the way for the initial success. "The political landscape of America on gun safety is changing before our eyes," he said. "The political conventional wisdom four months ago was that nothing would be done. Today we prove that conventional wisdom wrong."

But many lawmakers from across the political spectrum said it was too soon to gauge whether this renewed momentum for stricter gun measures could be sustained.

"It's a very important bill, and I think that Republicans and Democrats alike believe that it deserved to be considered on the Senate floor," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said after the vote. "But it is not in any way a predictor of the vote on final passage or the vote on any specific amendments."

No sooner had the gun bill's supporters overcome the first barrier than another emerged. Several Republicans blocked what is typically a customary agreement to proceed immediately to amendments. The Senate later adjourned for the week, just after Manchin filed his proposed amendment.

Democrats were preparing for the possibility that a group led by first-term Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky might employ delaying tactics that would require four days to consider each amendment, such as those to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But aides also said negotiations were underway with Republican leaders on an agreement that would avert a filibuster on every amendment.

"We will have an extensive debate," Cruz told reporters. "If ultimately we are dealing with a bill that would violate the 2nd Amendment, that would restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms, I am hopeful that the Senate will not pass such a bill."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has played a key role in shaping the legislation, warned that "pernicious" amendments could jeopardize a filibuster-proof majority. "It will be a struggle to get to 60 votes," he said.

Among the senators under the most political pressure are Democrats from states Republican Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential election. Two — Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska — broke with their party to vote against starting debate. Others, including Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — have not committed to supporting the bill.

The National Rifle Assn. said it would factor votes on the amendments into its decisions on which incumbents to support or oppose. In a statement, the group said it would oppose any proposals to ban firearms or high-capacity magazines and to expand background checks, calling the Manchin-Toomey proposal "misguided."

On the other side of the Capitol, Robin Kelly of Illinois was sworn in as the newest member of the House after a special election in which she won the support of well-financed new gun control groups seeking to counter the NRA's influence, such as one founded by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

"I ran for Congress so that I could work to bring about a safer, less violent and more prosperous future, one in which our children can grow up without the fear of gun violence," said the former state representative, whose congressional district includes Chicago's South Side. "Today is an important day in that fight."

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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