Nearly four months after the shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six others in Connecticut, the Senate moved closer Wednesday to a vote on a package of gun-related legislation, in a turnaround for supporters of new gun restrictions whose efforts have faltered in recent weeks.
It took bipartisan negotiations between two senators with impeccable gun-rights credentials to put the vote within reach.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced Wednesday a proposal to extend background checks to gun shows and online sales. Their compromise falls short of the universal measure gun control advocates sought because it would exempt private transactions between friends and family members.
But the Manchin-Toomey measure, while not expected to overcome all opposition, could prove palatable enough to a number of Republicans, and some Democrats from rural and conservative states, to secure passage.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” said Toomey, a former president of the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political group. “It’s common sense.”
Manchin, a conservative Democrat and former West Virginia governor, said that “no one in good conscience” could stand by and do nothing after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. Recent polls show that close to 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks.
Manchin said the proposal protects law-abiding gun owners “like myself and Pat.” Both have “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, a politically influential pro-gun group. Manchin said his constituents told him they could support background checks with exceptions along the lines of his proposal.
In the Republican-led House of Representatives, where even more resistance to gun control legislation is likely, another bipartisan pair of lawmakers said Wednesday that they planned to introduce a similar measure.
“Background checks on firearm purchases are the first line of defense against criminals and the dangerously mentally ill getting guns,” Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in a statement. “This legislation is enforceable, it will save lives, and it respects the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”
The momentum this week toward a possible agreement on a gun control measure is a distinct change from how the issue was faring last month. It comes after a two-week legislative recess when lawmakers were back home and presumably heard feedback from constituents. It could be that changed some minds, or the calculus of the Manchin-Toomey collaboration offered political cover, or a little bit of both.
But issue was gaining attention this week. Newtown families quietly circulated on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to act. First lady Michele Obama gave a speech in Chicago against gun violence, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leading gun control advocate, said he would develop a public scorecard on how lawmakers vote on gun legislation.
President Barack Obama, as part of his 2014 budget, proposed Wednesday an expansion of mental health services, with a $130 million initiative to help teachers recognize signs of mental illness. He also called for $30 million to support a nationwide mental health surveillance system and additional research on the causes and prevention of gun violence.
The president also responded to the Newtown massacre in his budget by removing some – but not all – of the language that has been added to must-pass spending bills for three decades that restricts the ability of the federal government to regulate the firearms industry. The changes would allow police to require dealers to conduct inventories, and would define antique firearms, which are not subject to background checks.
Obama praised the Manchin-Toomey agreement as “welcome and significant bipartisan progress.”
“It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence,” the president said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a test vote for Thursday on whether to proceed to debate on a package of gun-related legislation. It includes more school safety funding, stronger background checks and a crackdown on gun trafficking, as well as measures to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
But uncertainties remain. The NRA said it would oppose the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
“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 group said in a statement.
And even before Manchin and Toomey unveiled their proposal, 14 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said they would attempt to block a vote on any gun-related legislation.
But the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement that the background checks measure “continues the work that began more than 20 years ago when the Brady background check system was first created. Since that time, 2 million prohibited purchasers have been prevented from buying a gun, so we know that background checks work.”
Bloomberg, the founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a major donor to candidates who support gun restrictions, also endorsed it.
“This bill will not only help keep guns out of the wrong hands,” he said, “it will help save lives and keep our communities safe.”
Newtown family members took to Twitter to try and pressure filibuster supporters. One of them, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed to speak directly to the daughter of the school’s slain principal. To reporters this week, he said, “We should not be considering legislation that would restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Responding to claims by opponents that more background checks would lead to a national gun registry, Toomey said Wednesday, “It simply doesn’t happen.”
“Nothing in our amendment infringes on the lawful ownership of guns,” he said. “I wouldn’t support it if it did.”
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said that Toomey, who’s known more for his expertise on fiscal issues, has a reputation of reaching across the aisle, adding that he didn’t think the senator had much to gain or lose politically from working with Manchin.
“It’s Toomey being Toomey,” he said. “I think he honestly believes this is the right thing to do.”
Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed.