In the coming days, the Senate will hear debate and amendments to the bipartisan gun bill — which includes background checks — authored by senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). Last Thursday’s procedural vote to avoid a filibuster saw 50 Democrats and 16 Republicans voting in favor of the motion.
A vote on the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 is expected this week—with the support of 48 Democrats and three Republicans; nine more votes are needed for the measure to pass the Senate hurdle. These six senators remain undecided, and their votes could help determine the future of background check laws.
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Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) voted in favor of cloture to take this bill to a vote, but has yet to publicly state her stance on background checks. Ayotte has stated in the past that gun laws already in place should be enforced before introducing any new measures. In a February interview with Nashua, New Hampshire newspaper The Telegraph, Senator Ayotte said, “Of approximately 80,000 in 2012 that were denied (a gun) because of a background check…only 44 people were prosecuted for that.” She continued, “That surprised me, I want to look further at what we’re doing in terms of enforcement.”
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Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who holds an A rating with the NRA, had initially pledged to oppose stricter regulations on gun sales and stronger consequences for gun traffickers. Prior to Thursday’s vote, Burr also supported the filibuster. Apparently having a change of heart, the senator voted in favor of taking it to a vote, stating, “The vote yesterday [Thursday] was not on the specifics of these bills or whether they should be filibustered; rather, the vote was solely about whether we should begin a debate in the Senate on the issue. Since the leadership of the Senate agreed to unlimited debate and amendments, I believed it was important that the Senate at least have an open discussion.”
North Carolina constituents and pro-gun groups are now afraid Burr will have a similar change of heart on the bill itself. “Sen. Burr opposes efforts to further infringe on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens,” a spokesman for the senator said in an email. “Burr is open to having a conversation about ways in which our nation can address mental health issues and reduce violence, but he does not support limiting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.” Burr has yet to state his stance specifically on the Toomey-Manchin background check provisions.
A spokesman for Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) said that the senator is “continuing to review the legislation.” Heller voted to take the Toomey-Manchin proposal to a vote, but his stance on background checks remains unknown.
Heller said in statement after the vote on Thursday, “I remain staunchly opposed to any proposal that would create a national gun registry or would infringe upon Nevadans’ ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights. At the same time, I do think it’s important to explore ways to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill.”
Photo: Dean Heller Senate website
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who is up for re-election in 2014, also voted in favor of bringing the Toomey-Manchin bill to a vote. In an interview with CNN, Jim Acosta asked, “When 90 percent of the American people say we want universal background checks, how can you be against that?” “I’m not against that,” Landrieu responded. “Well, first of all, you know, I’m not the president of the United States, I’m a senator from Louisiana. And so I really will follow what the people in my state, you know, want me to do on that issue.” As of Monday, Landrieu hasn’t provided a definitive answer on how she will vote.
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Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), who also holds an A rating from the NRA, voted to end cloture on the bill. A spokesperson for Senator Donnelly said he is “reviewing the Manchin-Toomey legislation to ensure we improve our background check system while also protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
Generally speaking, Donnelly has been in support of background checks. In March, the senator told Indiana media outlets, “I am supportive of background checks. I want to make sure that people with, say, a felony or dealing with mental illness cannot get their hands on weapons that can cause so much destruction. And so we’re trying to put together a piece of legislation that will reflect that.”
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) also voted to end cloture on Thursday, but hasn’t made a final decision on the Toomey-Manchin bill. The New York Times reported on Monday that Senator Heitkamp is expected to be a no vote, stating, “Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, says he will vote against the measure, and at least three other Democrats are expected to join him in trying to defeat it, including Heidi Heitkamp, a freshman senator from North Dakota.” Heitkamp has not provided an official answer, however, in an interview last week, the senator said, “In our part of the country, this isn’t an issue. This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.” She added,“I’m going to represent my state.”