CAPITOL HILL— The U.S. Senate has voted to begin debate on sweeping gun-control legislation — the first major push in two decades to curb America’s death toll from firearms.
Despite polls showing overwhelming public support for new gun regulations and restrictions, it is not clear that any proposed reform will be approved by both houses of Congress.
The Democrat-led Senate began formal deliberations four months after a mass-shooting at a Connecticut elementary school brought America’s long-simmering debate on gun control to the forefront of the national political agenda.
A compromise between two pro-gun senators, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), over expanding background checks for gun buyers, opened the door for the debate to begin. The deal would require checks at gun shows and on the Internet, but would exclude sales between friends and family members. The Manchin-Toomey compromise also includes greater gun rights, such as allowing gun dealers to sell their products across state lines.
The National Rifle Association, the powerful gun owners group, issued a statement opposing the agreement, but said it was "a positive development" since it fell short of the wide-ranging background check system sought by Obama and many gun control advocates. The NRA opposes any new gun control measures as an infringement on the constitutional right to own weapons.
While multiple reforms have been proposed in the Democratically-controlled Senate — from banning military-style assault rifles to limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines to strengthening background check requirements for gun purchases to improving school safety — the final two, background checks and school safety, are thought to have the best chance of passage.
Wednesday, a bipartisan proposal emerged to block gun sales to those with violent criminal records or mental illness.
“Criminals and the dangerously mentally ill should not have guns," said Toomey. "I do not know anyone who disagrees with that premise. Now background checks are not a cure-all by any means, but they can be helpful.”
But several of Toomey's Republican colleagues voted against even debating such measures. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said firearms restrictions are ineffective and misguided.
“It is all predicated on one assumption, that I cannot [agree with], and that assumption is that somehow we think that the criminal element will single out this one law to comply with,” Inhofe said.
Fellow Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) noted the U.S. Constitution sets forth Americans’ right to bear arms.
“Any limitation on this fundamental right of self-defense makes us more dependent on our government for our own protection," he said. "Government cannot be everywhere at all times, so the practical effect of limiting our individual rights is to make us less safe.”
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, reminded colleagues of the horrors of Newtown.
“Twenty-six people were dead, that is the reality," he said. "And the worst reality is this: if we do not do something right now, it is going to happen again.”
Murphy suggested the freedom to bear arms must be weighed against other basic rights.
“Liberty is not about having any gun you want anytime you want it," he said. "Liberty also has to be about the right to be free from indiscriminate violence. I mean, what kind of liberty did these kids have in that classroom in Newtown, being trapped by an assault weapon-wielding madman?”
According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, debate on gun reform could last for weeks. Any measure the chamber ultimately adopts would likely face a tougher battle in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where opposition to firearms restrictions is stronger. President Barack Obama has pledged to continue pushing for new gun laws until they arrive at his desk for his signature.
Several states, including Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland, have enacted their own gun control laws in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.