PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s flagship gun-law reforms were salvaged last night by an 11th hour compromise between opposing politicians.
More than a dozen senior Republicans had threatened stalling tactics that would have prevented a US Senate debate from taking place, effectively scuppering the president’s promise to tighten legislation almost four months after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut.
But yesterday’s deal between Democratic senator Joe Manchin and Republican Patrick Toomey removes at least some of the main objections of opponents.
It would allow expanding background checks on gun buyers to include gun shows and internet sales, while allowing individual or private transactions, such as those between family members or fellow hunters, to proceed without regulation.
But more controversial parts of the president’s plan – such as a ban on rapid-firing “assault” weapons like the one used in the Connecticut attack and limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines – appear to have a slim chance of succeeding.
Senators will vote today on whether to move forward with the debate on other changes to the law, including background checks and restrictions of the trafficking of weapons, with Mr Manchin and Mr Toomey hopeful that their proposal will help secure the 60 votes needed.
“Back where I come from, we have common sense, we have nonsense and now we have gun sense,” said Mr Manchin, a senator from West Virginia.
“This amendment won’t ease the pain of the families who lost their children on that terrible day [in Newtown], but nobody here with a good conscience could sit by and not try to prevent a day like that from happening again.”
Mr Toomey, of Pennsylvania, said: “I’m a gun owner and the rights that have been enshrined in the second amendment are very important to me.
“[But] I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control, I think it’s just common sense. If you pass, you get to buy a gun. It’s the people who fail a criminal or mental health background check that we don’t want having them.
“The common ground rests on a simple proposition that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill and the insane shouldn’t have guns. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that premise.”
According to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, 91 per cent of Americans support universal background checks for gun ownership, including 88 per cent of those in households that already possess a weapon.
The senators said they had spent yesterday morning speaking to gun control groups and those representing gun owners before announcing their compromise in Washington DC.
However, the NRA – which claims to have more than five million members – issued a statement condemning the deal. It said: “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.”
Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said earlier this week that he would press for a vote today. He said: “The American people deserve a vote on background checks, on federal trafficking, on safety in school, on the size of clips, and on, yes, assault weapons.”
He had dropped a ban on assault weapons from the main legislative proposals, but said he was likely to reintroduce it as an amendment during a Senate debating period expected to last about two weeks.
White House officials accused Republicans of “hiding” behind procedural manoeuvres to delay the debate and vote, and Mr Obama was critical when he appeared at a rally in Connecticut with some of the families of those killed in Newtown.
He said: “They’re not just saying they’ll vote no on ideas that almost all Americans support. They’re saying they won’t allow any votes on them at all.”
Mr Manchin said yesterday’s deal was an important first step to overcoming that opposition.
Yet even if the Senate passes a package of gun-control measures, the legislation would still face a tough road to approval in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.