A Senate vote Thursday to proceed with debate on gun legislation cleared an important, early hurdle for supporters of firearms restrictions, but backers face huge and potentially insurmountable obstacles in the days and weeks ahead.
The Senate plans next week to consider some of the most far-reaching gun control measures Congress has debated in more than a decade. Next up are proposals to strengthen background checks, due for a vote Monday or Tuesday, followed by efforts to ban assault weapons, to restrict the size of ammunition clips and more.
The Senate hopes to finish work on the measure by April 26.
Getting strong gun control legislation is going to be tough. Though the vote to proceed Thursday passed by a bipartisan 68-31 vote, eight more than needed, many senators made it clear they were voting only to keep going, not to endorse any specific measures.
“This needs to be debated,” explained Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
But he, like many gun rights advocates, would not even commit to backing Wednesday’s compromise on background checks. He and others wanted to see the exact language first.
“There hasn’t been enough explanation,” Corker said.
Polls reflected the uncertainty. A CNN/ORC survey April 5-7 showed overwhelming support for background checks – but not all kinds. Nearly nine in 10 people backed tough checks for purchases from a gun store or other business. But that dropped to 70 percent for purchases from an individual and sank to 54 percent for guns bought from a family member or given as gifts.
The compromise forged this week by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., would not make background checks universal, as gun control advocates have sought. Their amendment would apply to gun show sales and online purchases but would exempt private transactions between friends and family members.
Still, gun control supporters, including President Barack Obama, saw Thursday’s vote as an important step forward. Sixteen Republicans joined 50 Democrats and two independents in favor of the procedural motion, while two Democrats – Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor – joined 29 Republicans in opposing it.
“I’ve long believed we don’t need more laws restricting the Second Amendment rights of Americans, we need to better enforce those on the books,” explained Begich, who faces a tough re-election next year.
The vote was a setback for the National Rifle Association, a politically powerful group that had sought to keep the legislation from getting to the Senate floor.
“We are turning the page against the NRA’s dominance,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an appearance with victims of gun violence and their families before the vote.
After the vote, the president spoke with family members of relatives killed in the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. He “congratulated the families on this important step forward,” according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
“The bipartisan progress would not have been possible without their efforts,” Carney said. “He reiterated that much work remains and pledged to continue fighting for the votes they deserve.”
Obama, like other gun control backers, praised the victims’ families, which have been meeting this week with senators, for having an important effect on the outcome.
They “may well have been decisive,” Carney said. “The president has said all along, and you heard him in Hartford on Monday, that Congress will do the right thing if the American people speak up."
But though the Thursday vote was an important symbolic victory, illustrating that a broad coalition of lawmakers were at least willing to debate the bill, there’s little agreement on much else.
The NRA, as well as major conservative groups, are watching closely and vowing to remind their members how lawmakers voted.
However, several groups pushing for tighter gun laws are fighting back. They have major backing from billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who might serve as a counterweight to two decades of NRA influence on gun issues.
“The ground is shifting politically as we speak,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called the vote a “breakthrough.”
The next hurdle will be trying to get agreement on what amendments will be taken up. Gun rights advocates are preparing their own proposals, believed to involve more funding for mental health, among other proposals.
Gun control backers know such proposals might gain considerable support, and by voting for them, on-the-fence senators could claim they voted for gun safety and not take the tougher votes. But without allowing such plans to come to a vote, supporters risk procedural tie-ups.
The supporters’ best hope is that the mood that prevailed this week continues: that for or against gun control, at least there should be a debate.
“I hope we don’t have to go through this procedural mishmash,” said Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.