Public rage puts senators under pressure to finally do something about gun violence
Some Republican senators tried on Friday to craft a compromise bill to impose limited gun restrictions in the face of pressure from Democrats and public rage over the Orlando mass shooting, the deadliest in modern U.S. history.
A gunman killed 49 people at the Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub last Sunday, sparking a scramble over competing gun measures in the U.S. Senate.
While gun-control measures have failed to clear Congress in the past, the massacre, coupled with public pressure and a suggestion by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that he can work with gun rights lobbyists to bring about change, may be changing the picture.
Republicans over the years have blocked gun control measures saying they step on Americans’ right to bear arms as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. During a week-long Senate debate, Democrats generally have criticized proposed Republican measures as being ineffective.
Republicans and Democrats have offered four separate proposals to expand background checks on gun buyers and curb gun sales for people on terrorism “watch lists.” But they seem destined to fail because of partisan politics and a requirement that any proposal muster 60 of the 100 votes in the U.S. Senate.
Republican Susan Collins of Maine, leading the new effort, is considering whether to allow guns to be purchased by people named on a broad terrorism watch list kept by the FBI, but not by people whose names appear on some more narrow lists, including a “no-fly” list that bans people from boarding planes.
The gun control issue is deeply divisive and there have been no major restrictions passed since 1994, when Congress imposed a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. That expired after 10 years.
AMERICANS WANT LIMITS -POLL
About 71 percent of Americans, including eight out of 10 Democrats and nearly six out of 10 Republicans, favor at least moderate regulations and restrictions on guns, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from Monday to Thursday. That was up from 60 percent in late 2013 and late 2014.
Both the gunman in the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, and the married couple who carried out a December mass shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, were thought to have been inspired by militant Islamist groups abroad.
Collins’ proposal likely would be offered in the Republican-led Senate sometime next week, provided the four other gun-control proposals fail to pass on Monday. Collins’ office declined to provide a detailed account of legislation she is working on with Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
A senior Democratic aide said that Democrats have concerns that under Collins’ bill, people credibly suspected of involvement in terrorism would not be covered by the weapons ban.
Collins told reporters on Thursday that barring people on terrorism watch lists from weapons purchases carried with it the risk of affecting people who have been swept onto the lists without good cause.
U.S. authorities maintain several watch lists – the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains three and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence runs one database. People are placed on such lists based on the threat level they are believed to pose.
“What we’re trying to do is not deny constitutional rights to a large group of individuals” who find themselves on watch lists despite the fact that there might not be credible evidence of potential criminal intentions, Collins said.
DEMOCRATS SEEK ANSWER
At least one Senate Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, has been involved in the talks, her spokeswoman said.
“I think she (Collins) is sincerely committed to finding a way to work this out,” said U.S. Senator Chris Murphy who, along with fellow Democrats, set the U.S. Capitol abuzz by talking on the Senate floor for nearly 15 straight hours this week to demand that Congress act on gun control.
Murphy said it was too early to say whether any Democrats would get on board with her approach.
A Senate Republican aide who asked not to be identified said the Collins bill “will aim to have teeth on preventing terrorists from getting guns and contain protections for due process” for those who should not be denied their rights to buy weapons.
Civil liberties advocates have long criticized such lists as rife with potential violations of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. FBI Director James Comey has argued using watch lists to block gun purchases could harm investigations because suspects would know they were being investigated.
Some also question the efficacy of such watch lists. The Orlando gunman had been taken off the FBI’s watch list in 2014 after an investigation into him found no incriminating information.
The competing watch-list proposals were defeated in the Senate last December, following the shooting in San Bernardino.
“Rather than doing Groundhog Day, I think it’s time for a new approach and a more targeted one,” Collins said in an apparent reference to a 1993 film in which the main character is doomed to relive the same unpleasant day over and over again.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Doina Chaicu; Editing by Frances Kerry)