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Senators see possibility of bipartisan support for gun background checks in wake of mass shootings

President Biden on March 23 called for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to close background check loopholes. (Video: The Washington Post)

Two senators — one Democrat and one Republican — said Sunday that lawmakers in both parties could support expanded background checks for gun sales amid increasing pressure to enact meaningful gun-control measures after two recent mass shootings left 18 dead.

“Don’t count us out,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that the fading political clout of the National Rifle Association presents an opportunity to work across the aisle to forge consensus on the issue.

Murphy framed the gun debate as a chance for Republicans to prove that they can work with Democrats to pass legislation, avoiding the need to eliminate the Senate filibuster, as some Democrats have urged. If 60 senators join forces to approve expanded background checks, Murphy said, that could create an opening to cooperate on other matters.

“Once we convince Republicans that the sky doesn’t fall for you politically when you support a reasonable expansion of something like background checks, you can move on to other interventions,” Murphy said.

Murphy acknowledged that gun bills approved by the House earlier this month could not survive in the Senate without substantial changes. The House bills would expand background checks to include private transactions between unlicensed individuals and close a loophole that allows gun sales to go through after three business days even if the background check is incomplete. Those provisions lack support among even some moderate Democrats in the Senate and could not garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential GOP filibuster.

By relaxing House-approved limitations on gun sales between family members, Murphy said, Democrats stand a good chance of winning Republican support.

As Senate minority leader eight years ago, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “would have said he absolutely opposed expanding background checks,” Murphy said. “Today, he’s much more careful about his words because he knows there might be 10 members or more of his caucus who want to support a modified version of the House bill that still is a massive expansion of the number of sales that are … included in the background check system.”

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who also appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, agreed that Senate Republicans could support expanded background checks on commercial gun sales. Like many Republicans, however, he blamed the scourge of gun violence primarily on rampant criminality and mental illness, rather than the enormous number of weapons that Americans own.

“I’m not a dangerous person,” Toomey said. “My focus has always been, make it more difficult for people that we all agree shouldn’t have firearms, make it more difficult for them to get firearms — that is violent criminals, the dangerously mentally ill. That’s what we should focus on.”

The renewed push for gun legislation is driven by two recent mass shootings: A 21-year-old man was charged with killing eight people at three Asian-owned spas in Georgia on March 16. And a 21-year-old man was charged with killing 10 people, including a police officer, inside a Boulder grocery store on March 22.

The shootings, which took place less than a week apart, prompted President Biden to call on Congress to enact “common sense” gun reforms, including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and closing loopholes on federal background checks.

“I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said Tuesday.

Gun-control advocates have urged Biden to use his executive powers to crack down on gun violence, and the White House has been exploring various options, including strengthening background checks and increasing funding for community anti-violence programs, The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan, Paul Kane and Seung Min Kim reported.

On Friday, Biden said he is considering executive orders that would limit access to imported weapons and guns produced on 3-D printers.

“We’re looking at that right now,” Biden told reporters. “We’re looking at what kind of authority I have relative to imported weapons, as well as whether or not I have any authority to — these new weapons that are being made by 3-D equipment that aren’t registered as guns at all. There may be some latitude there as well.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on March 21 said there should be a "deeper investigation" into the Atlanta shootings and anti-Asian hate crimes in America. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

The shootings in Georgia in particular ignited outrage over what should and shouldn’t be considered a hate crime and highlighted the increase in anti-Asian harassment and attacks since the pandemic started. But lawmakers and advocates in the Asian American community have said those conversations are not mutually exclusive from ones about gun-control legislation.

“This guy is able to get a gun, and on the very same day go on a shooting rampage?” Georgia state Rep. Sam Park (D) said last week. “That can’t be the society that we live in.”

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus traveled to Georgia to pay somber tribute to the victims of the murderous rampage earlier this month. They visited all three spas where the gunman opened fire, intending to highlight just how far he drove in between each one to specifically target Asian-owned businesses — and also how lax gun laws had allowed him to do so.

“It was important for us to trace the steps of the shooter, to see exactly what he did,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who led the delegation in placing flowers at their first stop, Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth. “He bought a gun right before he came here, because Georgia doesn’t have any waiting period versus California, where you have a 10-day waiting period. So, he had his emotional disturbances and came right here, clearly targeting an Asian business. And then drove 27 miles to two other Asian businesses.”

Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.), who joined the delegation on Sunday, said it was imperative to act on gun reform while Democrats controlled the House, Senate and the presidency.

“We must do something about gun violence. If we don’t, we won’t be able to explain that it was hard, that it was difficult and that we only had one vote possibility,” Green said. “We have to do something about it or history will not be kind to us and the voters may not be kind to us as well. We have to do something.”

The attack on a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., is the latest in a state that has been disproportionately plagued by the gun violence epidemic. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The debate over gun control has become enmeshed in discussions among Democrats about whether to overhaul the Senate filibuster, which for years has been used by both parties to block or stall legislation. Some Democrats have pushed to eliminate the filibuster for voting rights legislation, arguing that Congress must act to counter efforts in Republican-controlled state legislatures across the nation to limit access to the polls.

On Sunday, Murphy said Republican compromise on gun issues could prove the Senate can still function without drastic changes to the rules.

“Republicans have to argue, as a means of defending the current rules, that the Senate can still work under the 60-vote requirement,” Murphy said, adding: “Here’s their opportunity — an issue which has 90 percent support, which doesn’t require them to shift their position, their current position, to a herculean level. They can help us pass an expansion of background checks and prove to Democrats and the country that the Senate can work at a 60-vote threshold.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) challenged Democrats to pursue Biden’s call to enact a ban on semiautomatic rifles known as assault weapons.

“It won’t get 50 votes, much less 60,” Graham predicted on “Fox News Sunday,” offering an oft-mentioned personal rationale for permitting sales of AR-15s and other popular assault-style firearms.

“I own an AR-15,” Graham said. “If there’s a natural disaster in South Carolina where the cops can’t protect my neighborhood, my house will be the last one that the gang will come to, because I can defend myself.”

Shavin reported from Atlanta.

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