WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided Senate rejected rival plans to bolster the federal background check system and moved toward blocking other proposed curbs on guns Monday, eight days after the horror of Orlando’s mass shooting intensified pressure on lawmakers to act but knotted them in election-year gridlock anyway — even over restricting firearms for terrorists.
Each party offered a proposal it said would keep terrorists from obtaining firearms and a second shoring up the existing system of background checks for gun purchases. With the Senate visitors’ galleries unusually crowded for a Monday evening, lawmakers voted 53-47 for the Republican background check plan and 44-56 for the Democratic version — both short of the 60 needed to move ahead.
The two competing measures for keeping firearms from terrorists also faced defeat along mostly party lines, with each side accusing the other of dangerous political grandstanding and inflexibility. Democrats said the GOP proposals were unacceptably weak while Republicans faulted the Democrats’ plans as overly restrictive.
The proposals’ gloomy fates underscored the pressure on each party to give little ground on the emotional gun issue going into November’s presidential and congressional elections. It also highlighted the potency of the National Rifle Association, which was urging its huge and fiercely loyal membership to lobby senators to oppose the Democratic bills.
“Republicans should be embarrassed, but they’re not,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Republicans need to put the lives of innocent Americans ahead of the NRA.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Orlando shootings — in which the FBI says the American-born gunman swore allegiance to a leader of the Islamic State extremist group — show the best way to prevent attacks by extremists is to defeat such groups overseas.
“Look, no one wants terrorists to be able to buy guns or explosives,” McConnell said. He suggested that Democrats were using the day’s votes “as an opportunity to push a partisan agenda or craft the next 30-second campaign ad,” while Republicans wanted “real solutions.”
That Monday’s four roll-call votes were occurring at all was testament to the political currents buffeting lawmakers after gunman Omar Mateen’s June 12 attack on a gay nightclub. The 49 victims who died made it the largest mass shooting in recent U.S. history, topping the string of such incidents that have punctuated recent years.
The FBI said Mateen — a focus of two terror investigations that were dropped — described himself as an Islamic soldier in a 911 call during the shootings. That let gun control advocates add national security and the specter of terrorism to their arguments for firearms curbs.
Gun control groups were also working the issue, with relatives of victims of past mass shootings and others visiting lawmakers and watching the day’s debate from the visitors’ galleries.
GOP senators facing re-election this fall from swing states were under extraordinary pressure.
One, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said Monday she would vote for the Democratic measure to block gun sales to terrorists, a switch from when she joined most Republicans in killing a similar plan last December. She said that vote — plus her support for a rival GOP measure — would help move lawmakers toward approving a narrower bipartisan plan, like one being crafted by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Monday’s votes came after Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., led a near 15-hour filibuster last week demanding a Senate response to the Orlando killings. Murphy entered the Senate shortly after the December 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, but that slaughter and others have failed to spur Congress to tighten gun curbs. The last were enacted in 2007, when the background check system was strengthened after that year’s mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
Because of Mateen’s self-professed loyalty to extremist groups and his 10-month inclusion on a federal terrorism watch list, proposals aimed at blocking terrorists from getting guns were in the spotlight. One proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would let the government block many gun sales to known or suspected terrorists.
People buying firearms from federally licensed gun dealers can currently be denied for several reasons, chiefly for serious crimes or mental problems. There is no specific prohibition for those on the terrorist watch list, which updated government figures showed currently contains around 1 million people — including fewer than 5,000 Americans or legal permanent residents.
No background checks are required for anyone buying guns privately online or at gun shows.
The GOP response to Feinstein was an NRA-backed plan by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. It would let the government deny a sale to a known or suspected terrorist — but only if prosecutors could convince a judge within three days that the would-be buyer was involved in terrorism.
The Feinstein and Cornyn amendments would require notification of law enforcement officials if people, like Mateen, who’d been under a terrorism investigation within the past five years were seeking to buy firearms.
Republicans said Feinstein’s proposal gave the government too much unfettered power to deny people’s constitutional right to own a gun. They also noted that the terrorist watch list has historically mistakenly included people. Democrats said the three-day window that Cornyn’s measure gave prosecutors to prove their case made his plan ineffective.
The Senate rejected similar plans Feinstein and Cornyn proposed last December, a day after an attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people.
Murphy’s rejected proposal would widely expand the requirement for background checks, even to many private gun transactions, leaving few loopholes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, defeated plan increased money for the background check system. Like Murphy’s measure, it prodded states to send more records to the FBI, which operates the background check system, of felons and others barred from buying guns.
Grassley’s proposal also revamped language prohibiting some people with mental health issues from buying a gun. Democrats claimed that language would roll back current protections.
Separately, Collins was laboring to fashion a bipartisan bill that would prevent people on the no-fly list — with just 81,000 names— from getting guns. There were no signs Monday that it was getting wide support or would receive a vote.
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