WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. politicians are celebrating signs of bipartisanship with the prospect that the Senate might approve a gun safety measure. But the new law, even should it pass both houses of Congress, would not have prevented the mass school shooting late last year that killed 26 people, 20 of them very young children.
The proposed law would require background checks for criminal records or mental health issues among Americans buying guns not only from licensed dealers, as is now the case, but also from individuals at gun shows or online.
The Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre prompted renewed attention to rampant gun violence in the United States and emboldened activists and some lawmakers to begin a push against easy access to firearms. They acted in the face of what can be career-ending political assaults from the National Rifle Association, the powerful lobbying organization that promotes the right of Americans to own and bear arms under its interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The organization hotly rejects expanding background checks, claiming the move would create a national registry of gun owners that could lead to taxation or confiscation of their weapons.
Beyond that, lawmakers in rural states would face the ire of constituencies that are deeply opposed to any expansion of federal controls on firearms.
Parents of some of the students slain in Newtown are seen — through heavy lobbying pressure in the Senate — as having persuaded a sufficient number of opponents of action on gun safety to allow the measure to at least be debated on the Senate floor. In his State of the Union speech two months ago, President Barack Obama said victims of gun violence deserved at least a vote on the issue in both houses of Congress.
In today's inflamed partisan climate, moving any piece of legislation to a vote in the Senate can be nearly impossible. There are 100 senators but an objection to any proposed law by even one member of the chamber can prevent the bill from reaching the floor for debate and a vote. Senate rules require that at least 60 senators — a super-majority — must vote to override a block, known as a filibuster.
That happened last week and is the root of optimism that the partisan logjam may have cracked in the Senate, hope that legislators were finally falling in line with the 90 percent of Americans who, polls show, favor expanded background checks. But passage of the measure remains far from certain in the Senate where a growing number of Republican lawmakers have expressed opposition to a bipartisan proposal on expanding background checks, perhaps enough to prevent it from being brought to a final vote.
In any case, a background check law would have done nothing to prevent the Newtown horror. The killer was a mentally disturbed young man who lived with his mother. She had legally bought the guns used by her son in the massacre. He began his rampage by shooting his mother in their home.
The killer's primary weapon was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a type of assault weapon that was banned by federal law for a decade after 1994, but again became available to the general public when Congress refused to extend the prohibition nine years ago.
Legislation now under consideration in the Senate and supported by Obama would expand background checks, strengthen laws against illegal gun trafficking and slightly increase school security aid. It does not include a renewal of the assault weapons ban, nor would it ban large capacity ammunition magazines. The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, fired 154 shots using 30-round magazines in his Bushmaster version of the AR-15. He killed himself with one shot from one of two semi-automatic handguns he also took to the school.
Republicans in the Senate are preparing amendments to the law that would weaken its effectiveness. Democrats are expected to offer amendments to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds, but those are not likely to pass.
Estimates put the number of guns in the hands of Americans at or above the country's population of about 300 million. Gun ownership remains a perennially divisive issue in the country where rural regions heavily back the right to own firearms for protection and hunting. Urban areas, which are most afflicted by gun violence, tend to side more with prohibitions on gun ownership. Gun deaths — homicides, suicides and accidents — accounted for the death of more than 31,000 people in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Steven R. Hurst is AP's international political writer.