GOP May Lure Democratic Votes on Bill Relaxing Concealed-Weapons Laws

Sen. John Thune, left, proposes loosening the law on transporting weapons; Sen. Charles Schumer calls it a breach of states' rights.
Sen. John Thune, left, proposes loosening the law on transporting weapons; Sen. Charles Schumer calls it a breach of states' rights. (Lauren Victoria Burke - AP)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Senate Democrats are scrambling to defeat a Republican-backed provision that would allow gun owners to carry their weapons across state lines, overriding the stricter laws of many jurisdictions and giving preference to states with looser standards.

Critics, including police organizations, big-city mayors and gun-victims groups, decried the legislation as creating "a new national lowest common denominator" for ownership of firearms. But twice this year, Republicans have succeeded in rolling back restrictions on guns with substantial backing from moderate Democrats, many newly elected from Western states with strong Second Amendment traditions.

For a minority party with little influence on Capitol Hill, the gun votes represent a rare opportunity to divide a filibuster-proof Senate Democratic majority. In May, the GOP lured 27 Senate Democrats to support looser rules on firearms in national parks; the measure passed the House and was signed by President Obama as part of an unrelated credit-card bill.

In February, 22 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to stall the District's quest for House voting rights by demanding that the legislation also ease D.C. gun restrictions.

The latest measure, offered by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), has far greater reach. Offered Monday as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, it would allow people to carry concealed firearms across state lines, provided they "have a valid permit or if, under their state of residence . . . are entitled to do so."

The amendment is opposed by 400 mayors, including New York's Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Boston's Thomas M. Menino (D), who outlined their objections in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). They noted that at least 31 states prohibit alcohol abusers from obtaining concealed-carry permits; at least 35 states bar people convicted of certain misdemeanors from becoming gun owners; and at least 31 states require people to complete gun-safety programs before securing a weapons permit.

But Reid voted for both pro-gun measures earlier this year and is viewed as a likely "yes" on Thune's amendment, although he has not declared a position. A vote on the amendment could come Wednesday, said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman.

Thune described his amendment as a crime-prevention tool. "Since criminals are unable to tell who is and who is not carrying a firearm just by looking at a potential victim, they are less likely to commit crimes when they fear that they may come in direct contact with an individual who is armed," he said in the statement.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has pledged to filibuster the amendment, called it a breach of states' rights. "Each state has carefully crafted its concealed-carry laws in the way that makes the most sense to protect its citizens," he said. "Clearly, large, urban areas merit a different standard than rural areas," he said. "To gut the ability of local police and sheriffs to determine who should be able to carry a concealed weapon makes no sense. It could reverse the dramatic success we've had in reducing crime in most all parts of America."

The National Rifle Association called Thune's amendment "important and timely pro-gun reform" and is urging a yes vote. "The right to self-defense does not end at state lines," the group said.

Schumer and his Senate allies are seeking to convince their more conservative colleagues that the measure is a political taunt, with potentially dire public-safety implications. Two top targets are Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, freshman Democratic senators from Colorado who voted with Republicans on both previous gun measures.

Udall told reporters Monday night that he will review Colorado's concealed-weapons statute, but added: "I would imagine there would be some concern back home" about Thune's measure.

Survivors and families of victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings ran a full-page ad in Monday's Richmond Times-Dispatch, calling on Virginia's senators, James Webb and Mark Warner, to vote against the amendment. Both Democratic lawmakers are counted in the party's pro-gun camp. Webb said Monday night that he was working with Thune to modify the bill so that he could support it.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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