16 Apr 2013

US gun controls: how even a compromise could fail

The US Senate holds its first debate on major gun control legislation for almost 20 years. But the parties are split: now, even a compromise deal on stricter background checks could fail.

US flag and gun (getty)

It is a huge moment for America’s gun debate: this week, the Senate will begin hearing a series of amendments to the gun bill, President Obama’s pledge to dramatically tighten the law after the Newtown school shooting tragedy in December.

But despite the huge groundswell of public opinion after the Newtown school shooting in December last year, it now looks as if efforts to drive through any kind of legislation could be doomed.

Some proposals, like a ban on military-style assault weapons and limits on the size of ammunition magazines, have already been dropped because there is no possibility that they will reach the 60-vote threshold required to get through.

Now, hopes rest on a compromise put forward by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, requiring background checks on all firearms on sale at gun shows, or via the internet. It would also penalise states which do not update a national criminal check system with information on people who have been banned from buying such weapons.

The vote – expected on Tuesday – will be crucial: not least because it will indicate the level of bipartisan support, and opposition, towards any kind of gun control legislation. If the Manchin-Toomey amendment falls, the chances of getting anything else through at all are pretty hopeless.

We’ve got some work to do. Senator Jim Manchin, co-sponsor of gun law amendment

Both senators have been speaking on the floor of the Senate and lobbying colleagues in a last effort to gather support, admitting it is “going to be close”. As it stands, the numbers do not appear to be going their way.

At least, not if you read the New York Times, which suggests that “an accounting of likely votes shows how difficult it could be to pass new gun legislation”. The parties are split: Democrats in right-leaning states are worried about their re-election prospects, and some Republicans are trying to balance the desire to accomodate public opinion with deep held beliefs about gun ownership.

On top of that, some liberals are not happy about the gun rights provisions which have been added to the bill to appease the GOP: provisions which have already led one leading gun rights group to break with the National Rifle Association and come out in support of the compromise deal.

Mixed signals

But other pundits talk of mixed signals or, at best, the Manchin-Toomey bill “inching closer to 60 votes”. There are constant updates about the numbers for, against, and undecided. Long and tortuous, as the Washington Post put it, does not begin to describe it.

“We’ve got some work to do,” Mr Manchin told reporters on Sunday. “You’ve got some very close Democratic colleagues who are having some difficulties, and our Republican colleagues are trying to get comfortable.”

As for Mr Toomey, he claimed he was not concerned about a political backlash: “I’ll just let the political chips fall the way they fall.”

As you might expect, both sides have launched a blitz of activity to shore up support. President Obama will be talking about gun controls, amongst other issues, in a major interview with NBC, to be screened on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Obama team’s Organising for Action has launched a nation-wide “call for action” day on Tuesday, urging supporters to phone their senators and demand action.

Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was badly injured when a gunman opened fire at a public event in her Arizona constituency, will be in Washington this week to lobby for change.

We can reduce gun violence with common sense legislation. Mark Kelly, Americans for Responsible Solutions

Her husband, Mark Kelly, said “We’re not going to stop every murder from a gun. We’re not going to stop every mass shooting. But we can reduce gun violence with common sense legislation.”

Gun rights campaigners have been lobbying, too, putting pressure on wavering Republicans. Susan Collins of Maine, who backs the compromise amendment, told GOP colleagues she was facing a fierce backlash, including a media campaign against her by a prominent gun lobby group.

One senior Republican, John McCain, hinted he might come out in favour of the new restrictions. “Eighty percent of the American peope want to see a better background checks procedure”, he told CNN. “I am very favourably disposed.”

Others are adamantly opposed, like Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, who declared that defending second amendment rights “is an argument Republicans will win with the American people”.

And so the speculation continues, reading the runes of the undecideds on which side they might eventually support. Memories of the Newtown massacre are still vivid. Tuesday will also be the sixth anniversary of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. How long does the public memory last?

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News