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At a glance
The Senate is debating legislation backed by President Obama aimed at restricting guns in the wake of last December’s elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Here are highlights:
Background checks: Federal background checks are currently required only for guns bought through licensed firearms dealers, who keep records. The bill would extend that requirement to nearly all buyers, with limited exceptions including transactions between close relatives and guns lent briefly while hunting.
Next week, the Senate is expected to consider a less-restrictive bipartisan compromise that would require checks for for-profit sales, such as those at gun shows or online, with licensed dealers keeping records. Noncommercial transactions between individuals, such as people who know each other, would be exempted.
Gun trafficking: The legislation would establish specific federal bans on firearm sales to criminals and on straw purchases, when a person legally buys a firearm but does so for someone forbidden to own one such as a criminal, someone with a serious mental illness or a drug abuser. Maximum sentences would be 25 years. Currently, firearms dealers can be prosecuted for making false statements on gun applications and can face 10-year penalties.
School safety: The bill would renew a school safety grant program of $40 million annually, up from $30 million a year, with states required to match federal funds. The money could be used for steps including classroom locks, coordination with local law enforcement and security assessments.
– Associated Press
Associated Press

Senate agrees to debate over gun proposals

Deliberations likely to take weeks

– The Senate voted 68 to 31 on Thursday to begin debating legislation to curb gun violence, launching what many expect will be weeks of deliberations on the most significant proposals to overhaul the nation’s gun laws in two decades.

As family members of the victims of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., watched from the balcony, 16 Republicans joined with 52 members of the Senate Democratic coalition on a procedural motion to proceed with debate. Two Democrats joined 29 Republicans in opposing the motion.

“The hard work starts now,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote. Earlier, he implored his colleagues to support debating the measure: “Whichever side you are on, we ought to be able to agree to engage in a thoughtful debate about these measures.”

Debate will begin in earnest next week, when Reid said he will move to vote on a bipartisan agreement to extend the current background-check requirements to include any sale that takes place at a gun show or that is advertised in print or online.

President Obama called the Newtown families after Thursday’s vote, according to White House aides.

The president’s political apparatus, Organizing for Action, also sent an e-mail to supporters seeking new donations and urging them to keep pressure on lawmakers.

“There is still work to be done,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “This was only, while important, a step in the right direction.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., billed the vote as a victory over the National Rifle Association, which urged lawmakers to block debate, and credited Newtown family members for helping to tip the balance.

“The only reason we are turning the page is because of you,” Schumer told Newtown families who appeared with him at a news conference. “You spoke to Congress. You spoke to the American people. We looked in your eyes, we saw your loss. We saw the hole where your child, your sibling, your parent used to be.”

Several Republicans said they will continue opposing the legislation.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, called the bill under consideration “a symbolic gesture” and urged Congress to instead boost federal funding for mental health programs. “We need to make sure that the mentally ill are getting the help they need, not guns,” he said.

The 16 Republicans who voted to proceed included Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, an influential threesome on several policy issues.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also voted to proceed but said he’s not a guaranteed “yes” on final passage.

“The threshold for me to vote for any gun legislation, I’m not sure could be met,” he said, adding that he’s still eager to hold a debate.

“Could I learn something that I don’t know? Possibly. Could someone come up with an angle that hadn’t been thought of? Certainly,” he said.

The two red-state Democrats who voted against proceeding, Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, face difficult re-election prospects in 2014.

“We don’t need more laws restricting the Second Amendment rights of Americans, we need to better enforce those on the books,” Begich said in a statement.

Other Democrats facing difficult re-elections, including Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted to debate the measure but haven’t said whether they’ll support the overall package.

The agreement on background checks – announced Wednesday by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.; Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; and Schumer – would exempt most private firearms transfers, a key concession expected to help the proposal earn bipartisan support.

The proposal also would permit gun dealers to sell firearms across state lines, and gun owners with state-issued permits to carry concealed weapons would be allowed to take their firearms through states that don’t allow concealed weapons.

Other proposed changes include Democratic proposals to ban military-style assault rifles and limit the size of ammunition magazines; both of those are expected to fail.

Before the vote, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, read aloud a letter from a woman named Emily, a 19-year-old from Allentown, Pa.: “Gun control doesn’t solve anything, criminals will get guns no matter what. I want to protect myself as well as someone else. Please don’t take away my Second Amendment rights.”

Lee concluded: “Well said, Emily.”