By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A key procedural motion to take up Congress’ first step toward gun control legislation since December’s mass shootings in Connecticut passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday.
Senators voted 68-31 to clear the way for the chamber to start debating a bill next week that would expand background checks for gun purchases beyond already-required commercial sales to gun shows, Internet sales and possibly private transactions as well.
Limits on ammunition capacity and a ban on military-style assault weapons remain faint possibilities.
Although it was only a procedural motion, Thursday’s vote was viewed by most observers as the first critical test of Congress’ appetite for some kind of gun control bill four months after a gunman with an assault rifle murdered 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.
If debate begins next week, a final vote on the bill could still be weeks away, followed by an even more challenging uphill climb in the Republican-controlled House. The Senate hopes to finish work on the measure by April 26.
Republicans generally oppose expanding background checks, with some exceptions, arguing that requiring background checks would eventually lead to a government-run gun registration system.
Iowa’s two senators split on Thursday’s motion, with Democrat Tom Harkin supporting it and Republican Chuck Grassley opposed. Harkin said that taking up the bill at least ensures a thorough debate on its merits, and called the Republican argument against expanding background checks “nonsense.”
“This is a step in the right direction toward having some sane, rational control of firearms in this country,” Harkin said. “Every time something is proposed, the other side says, ‘Oh, the government’s going to take over,’ and it’s nonsense. It’s just fear-mongering.”
But Grassley gave a floor speech this week against proceeding to the bill that argued polls showing 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks only mean that most poll respondents don’t understand the ramifications and possible consequences.
Grassley told reporters afterward that a criminal justice expert who testified earlier this year before the Senate Judiciary Committee — on which Grassley sits — said background checks would not be possible without a federal registration system.
“If the people being polled knew the problems with these ideas out there, the polls might not be as lopsided as they are,” Grassley said. “People like me who support the Second Amendment don’t think the federal government ought to know where every gun is in the United States. Now I don’t fear the federal government confiscating (guns), but I can sure tell you it came up in my town meetings. There is that fear out there … The idea is to make sure the government doesn’t know where all the guns are.”
A bipartisan pair of senators, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, proposed a possible compromise this week that would expand background checks to gun shows and Internet sales, but stop short of requiring them for private transactions such as between family members or friends. That proposal will be considered as an amendment next week.
The 68 critical votes to proceed to the bill Thursday included 50 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one independent. Many of the prominent GOP senators who supported the motion warned that their vote should not be interpreted as support for the bill itself.
“The American people deserve debate and discussion on this, they really do,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, told The Gazette. “It’s too important an issue for us to say we’re not going to debate it.”
The 31 votes against proceeding to the bill included 29 Republicans and just two Democrats, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.