Senate Defeats Conceal-Carry Measure That Divided Democrats

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sponsored the amendment.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sponsored the amendment. (Harry Hamburg - AP)
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

An amendment that would have allowed gun owners to carry their weapons across state lines fell just short of passage Wednesday in a vote that revealed deep divisions among the Senate's Democrats.

Supporters included all but two Republicans and 20 Democrats, but the vote of 58 to 39 in favor fell two short of the 60 needed to defeat a filibuster.

Despite its defeat, the amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), demonstrated the continuing power of the National Rifle Association and the gun rights issue in Congress. Rather than a setback, those backing the effort consider the vote a sign of strength for the Second Amendment and are planning more gun-related amendments to other legislation throughout the year. Afterward, Thune said he hopes the Senate will "reconsider this important issue" later this year.

It split not only Democrats, many of whom got to the Senate by supporting gun rights, but also the caucus's leadership: Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), campaigning for reelection in 2010, voted yes, while his top lieutenants, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), led the push by liberal Democrats against the measure.

Offered as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill, the legislation would have allowed people to carry concealed firearms across state lines, provided they "have a valid permit or if, under their state of residence" they "are entitled to do so." It was considered one of the most far-reaching federal efforts ever proposed to expand gun-permitting laws.

"This carefully tailored amendment will ensure that a state's border is not a limit to an individual's fundamental right and will allow law-abiding individuals to travel without complication throughout the 48 states that already permit some form of conceal and carry," Thune said during Wednesday's sometimes contentious debate.

The NRA, in urging a yes vote, called the amendment "important and timely pro-gun reform."

In a rare instance of their trumpeting states' rights, the liberal Democrats noted that 36 states have specific laws regarding these gun permits. Some bar conceal-carry permits for alcohol abusers and prohibit misdemeanor criminals from carrying weapons.

"The states already have laws. Under the Thune amendment, those laws could be ignored. So if the Thune amendment becomes law, people who are currently prohibited from carrying concealed guns in those 36 states are free to do so. It is absurd that we are considering this," said Durbin, the majority whip.

Big-city mayors, such as New York's Michael R. Bloomberg (I), also voiced opposition, as did gun victims groups, such as families of students killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. "This bill is an anti-police, pro-gun-trafficker bill," Bloomberg said on the eve of the vote. "It is a bill that will make the police's job much more difficult and much more dangerous, and it will make the streets of our country -- not just big cities, it's small towns as well -- it will make them much more dangerous than they have to be."

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) voted against the measure despite their previous support for gun rights legislation that would gut the District's strict handgun laws.

Democrats, who have traditionally championed gun control to fight crime, won their large majority over the past two elections by recruiting supporters of the Second Amendment to run in states where gun ownership is common.

During the debate, Schumer -- who led the campaign efforts in 2006 and 2008 -- offered the hypothetical example of a gang member in New York City moving to Vermont, which has some of the least strict gun laws in the nation, and establishing residency there. That person could then buy guns and transport them back to New York, Schumer argued.

But he was rebuffed by one of his prize recruits, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), whose victory in November 2006 gave Democrats control of the Senate. "The reality of that particular situation is the gang members already have their guns. . . . The people who need this bill are the ones that the gang members might be threatening," Webb said.

Faced with a difficult reelection battle next year in what is regarded as a pro-gun state, Reid told reporters Tuesday that he would support the measure. He declined to explain why.

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