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US Senate agrees to debate landmark gun law

The law contains an expansion of background checks for gun purchases at firearm shows and on the internet but not between relatives and friends.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Image: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Press Association Images

THE US SENATE has voted to debate the most ambitious gun safety legislation in nearly two decades, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed on expanding background checks for firearm sales.

With relatives of the 20 children killed in the Newtown massacre watching from the visitors’ galleries, lawmakers overcame Republican obstruction and overturned years of Senate refusal to address the nation’s gun laws.

The move, which included 16 Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to proceed, sets up crucial votes next week on amendments to the bill, which also stiffens penalties for gun trafficking and boosts school safety.

“The hard work starts now,” Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues moments after the 68-31 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney relayed the administration’s encouragement of the “bipartisan progress” on display in the Senate.

But he stressed that today’s vote was just the “first stage in an effort to get sensible, common-sense legislation that would reduce gun violence in America while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights.”

President Barack Obama, who has leaned heavily on Congress to adopt his proposed steps to reduce gun violence in the aftermath of Newtown, meanwhile called families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims to congratulate them on the vote result and pledge his continued support in the fight.

Background checks

The crucial ingredient in the complex gun control recipe is undoubtedly the compromise on background checks reached by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey.

The deal waters down the universal background check system sought by Obama, which was opposed by scores of lawmakers including some Democrats — like Manchin of West Virginia — who hail from conservative-leaning, pro-gun states.

But it strengthens existing legislation, which only requires background checks for firearm purchases at licensed gun dealers, to require checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet. It would still allow gun sales between relatives and friends to continue without such checks, however.

The big question now is whether the legislation, in parts or as a whole, can pass the Senate and head to the House, where an even tougher vote is expected.

Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, where the main city Chicago is awash in gun violence, helped craft the compromise and is likely on board. And another moderate in the party, Susan Collins, has expressed her initial support, although she said she wanted to look closely at the bill’s language.

But in a sign of the issue’s political dynamite, two Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in pro-gun states, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska, voted against proceeding to debate on the bill.

Reid pledged to allow any senator to come forward with amendments to improve the broader bill, which is seen as the country’s most significant gun legislation since a 1994 federal crime bill.

© AFP, 2013

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