By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate’s strongest push in years to tighten gun control was likely to fall short on Monday while lawmakers tried to forge a compromise by later this week that might keep firearms away from people on terrorism watch lists.
The deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history last week has spurred quick action in Congress, but none of the four bills getting votes later on Monday was expected to achieve the 60 votes needed for passage in the 100-seat chamber, as Republicans and Democrats have not been able to reach consensus.
Republicans and Democrats have offered two proposals each to expand background checks on gun buyers and curb gun sales for individuals on terrorism watch lists after the massacre in an Orlando nightclub.
But Republicans and their allies in the National Rifle Association gun lobby say the Democratic bills are too restrictive and trample on the constitutional right to bear arms. Democrats attacked the Republicans plans as too weak, and all of the measures were expected to lose in near party-line votes.
“It’s always the same. After each tragedy, we try, we Democrats try to pass sensible gun safety measures. Sadly, our efforts are blocked by the Republican Congress who take their marching orders from the National Rifle Association,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said as the Senate opened debate on the proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the Democratic proposals were ineffective and Democrats were not sincere in their effort.
“Instead of using this as an opportunity to push a partisan agenda or craft the next 30-second campaign ad,” McConnell said, Republican senators “are pursuing real solutions that can help keep Americans safer from the threat of terrorism.”
While gun control efforts failed after mass shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and a conference center in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, some senators see resistance to gun restrictions softening as national security looms larger in the debate.
The Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to the militant group Islamic State as he killed 49 people in a gay nightclub.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week found that 71 percent of Americans favor at least moderate regulations and restrictions on gun sales. That compared with 60 percent in late 2013 and late 2014.
Senior Senate aides on Monday left open the possibility of other votes later in the week on unspecified gun control proposals. Some Republicans pinned hopes on a compromise proposal by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, which was not one of the four bills being considered on Monday.
Her plan would restrict gun purchases to a narrow group of suspects, including those on a “no-fly” list or a “selectee” list of people who require additional screening at airports..
Even if the Senate approved a gun compromise, it would also have to be passed by the Republican-majority House of Representatives. House Republican leadership aides did not comment on the possibility that any bills proposing gun restrictions would be considered on the House floor this week.
To become law, a bill has to be passed by both chambers in Congress and then signed by President Barack Obama.
Congress has not passed new gun restrictions since a 2007 expansion of the government’s automatic background check database to include individuals with a history of mental illness and felons. The United States has more than 310 million weapons, about one for every citizen.
Separately, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge by gun rights advocates, leaving in place gun control laws in New York and Connecticut that ban assault weapons like the one used in last week’s massacre in Florida.
The issue has also moved to the forefront of the debate ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. election.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday sought to clarify comments he made about guns following the Orlando shooting, saying in a tweet that he meant security staff – not patrons – at the gay nightclub should have been better armed.
‘National security issue’
Following the Orlando shooting, Democrats have been pushing a new tactic to try to shift the gun control debate to a national security issue, in part to make new restrictions more appealing to Republicans.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is pushing a Democratic proposal to give the federal government broad latitude to deny gun purchases to those under suspicion of terrorism links, said her plan “would have picked up Omar Mateen,” who had once been on a watch list.
Some Republicans said the plan goes too far and may trample on the constitutional rights of those wrongly suspected.
“Republicans and Democrats should be looking at the rise of ISIS and its ability to communicate with and influence disturbed individuals domestically, which is a national security issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves,” said Republican political strategist Rory Cooper.
Likewise, Democrats said Republican Senator John Cornyn’s proposal to require court approval within three days for the government to ban an individual’s attempt to buy a gun over terrorism suspicions does not go far enough. A similar bill failed last December.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who has opposed Democratic gun control proposals, has said he supports Cornyn’s plan because it “codifies” current practices on terrorism suspicions.
Other proposals to be voted on Monday are Murphy’s plan to expand background checks to online sales and those at gun shows and Republican Senator Charles Grassley’s proposal to boost funding for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and add mental health considerations to the checks.