CAPITOL HILL - One day after the U.S. Senate blocked four gun control measures, a proposal emerged Tuesday that could ease the partisan furor over the chamber’s failure to act in the aftermath of the attack on an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, America's deadliest mass shooting.
Forged by a bipartisan group that included some of the Senate’s most centrist members, the measure would deny gun sales to terror suspects who are barred from boarding commercial flights and subject to enhanced security screening at U.S. airports. It also would allow those flagged for terrorist ties to contest the government’s findings and recover legal fees if a judge determines they had been placed on the terror watch list by mistake.
“Our goal is simple and straightforward. We want to make America safer,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who was the proposal’s lead author. “Surely the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino [California] and Orlando that took so many lives are a call for compromise, a plea for bipartisan action.”
“I owe it to the people of Orlando to get something done,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who co-sponsored the measure.
The proposal’s nine sponsors — four Republican, four Democratic and one independent — appeared together at a news conference as partisan fallout continued after Monday’s votes in which Republicans blocked Democratic gun reform measures and Democrats blocked Republican ones.
Linked to NRA
Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, accused Republicans of being pawns of America’s most powerful gun rights lobbying group.
“Senate Republicans proved again that, regardless of how brutal the massacre, their actions will be dictated by the National Rifle Association,” Reid said.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, argued that the Islamic State group would be unable to inspire domestic terrorist attacks in the United States had the Obama administration taken stronger steps to eradicate it.
“Why don’t we get serious? ISIL is not the JV [junior varsity] team," McConnell said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "It’s not contained. And we need to defeat it overseas if we want to prevent more terrorist tragedies here at home.”
Immediately after Monday’s votes, Democrats pledged to make long-standing Republican opposition to gun reform a central issue in the November election. Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats compared with just 10 by Democrats eager to retake control of the chamber.
Among Republicans waging a tough re-election battle is Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a co-sponsor of the compromise proposal.
“I hope that we can stop the politics and really focus on a result that will make a difference for the American people,” Ayotte said. “Gun control won’t stop terrorism. However, I think we can all agree that we do not want terrorists to purchase firearms.”
Working with Democrats on gun control will not endear Ayotte to conservative gun rights proponents, but could prove popular with independents and moderate voters who often decide close elections.
Vulnerable Republican senators are “in a tough spot” on gun control, according to political analyst Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research group.
“Their party largely opposes gun limits, but the average voter back home likely supports some steps,” Binder said. “Finding a bipartisan compromise to vote for will be important for these GOP senators in the fall.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, New Hampshire Democrats are giving Ayotte no credit for working across party lines.
“[Ayotte] remains opposed to efforts to expand criminal background checks, which are necessary to prevent terrorists from simply buying weapons online or at a gun show,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “Her refusal to support this common-sense measure exposes just how much Kelly Ayotte puts the gun lobby ahead of the safety of her constituents.”
Proponents of the compromise measure acknowledged that even if it became law, a terror suspect could avoid federal detection by purchasing firearms at venues where gun sales are not scrutinized.
“If a terrorist goes to a gun show, there is no [background] check at all,” said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent. “That’s another discussion for another day.”
Approval not assured
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, McConnell said he would allow a vote on the bipartisan proposal, which would need three-fifths backing to advance in the chamber.
Senate approval is far from assured, according to the measure’s sponsors.
“I’m not optimistic that Senator Collins can get 15 or 16 Republican senators to support the bill,” said Democrat Nelson.
Moments after the news conference ended, the NRA tweeted to its members, warning: “More Gun Control Votes Coming!” The lobbying group urged supporters to tell their senators, “NO NEW GUN CONTROL!”
At the news conference, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, anticipated the NRA’s move.
“To my friends at the NRA: I understand your concern about denying somebody the right to buy a gun,” Graham said. “But every right, whether speech or buying a weapon, has boundaries on it.”
“Imposing new limits on access to guns has long faced an uphill battle [in Congress],” Binder said, adding that the carnage in Orlando and a surge in public support for limited gun reform “have put the issue back on the table.”