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Proponents of stricter gun control face a reality check in the Senate

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) co-wrote a 2013 bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Amid calls for a vote on gun control, he said, “If we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) co-wrote a 2013 bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Amid calls for a vote on gun control, he said, “If we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort.” (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Supporters of universal background checks for gun purchases face a daunting reality in their demand for a snap Senate roll call: They don’t have the votes; not even close.

Just two Republican senators — Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — are on record in support of expanding background-check laws, specifically through a bill Toomey drafted with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

That bill, written after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., contained several concessions designed to win support from Senate Republicans, such as allowing interstate sales of handguns among gun dealers.

Now, quite a few Senate Democrats view the Manchin-Toomey bill as insufficient to deal with the mass violence that has grown worse since that failed 2013 effort. They are demanding a vote on the House version of the legislation, approved in February, which drops those concessions to conservatives.

But even if Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) could corral all 47 members of the Democratic caucus for the House bill, GOP support might be nonexistent.

Toomey and Collins have reiterated their backing for the 2013 Senate bill but not the House legislation. And after the recent mass shootings in California, Texas and Ohio, just one Republican — Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — has professed new support for the House background-check bill.

Other Republicans, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Mike Braun (Ind.), have expressed support for some type of universal background checks, but not the House bill in its current form.

Democratic drive for gun control reflects rapidly changing political dynamic

That leaves every existing background-check bill short of a simple majority in the Senate — and all are well short of the likely 60-vote threshold they would have to crest to get such a bill to President Trump’s desk.

With that whip count in mind, Toomey declined to join calls for the Senate to abandon its recess and return to Washington for an emergency gun-control session.

“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” he told reporters Monday in a conference call, “and if we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort.”

Toomey wants to mount a slow and steady political pressure campaign to win over enough support from the 22 Republican senators who have never voted on his gun bill.

Democrats want the opposite, demanding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) call the Senate back from its five-week-plus break to hold an immediate vote on the House bill.

“Gavel the Senate to an emergency session so we can take immediate action on the bipartisan, already passed gun legislation,” Schumer told reporters on Long Island on Tuesday.

The biggest wild card, as always, is Trump.

He commands such a devout following among Republican voters that if he were to rally behind a background-check bill, that might prompt enough GOP senators to shy away from their long-standing support of positions laid out by the National Rifle Association.

But Trump’s public comments have veered back and forth. On Monday morning, just before 7 a.m., he expressed support for “strong background checks,” and then, a little more than three hours later, he delivered a White House address that did not mention background checks and invoked the sort of language that NRA supporters have long used.

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger. Not the gun,” Trump said.

That shifts Republicans’ focus toward more modest “red flag” proposals, designed to provide federal grants to encourage more states to adopt laws that allow police to block people from keeping guns if courts deem them a risk to themselves or others.

The last real gun debate came in early 2013 — after the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 20 students and six school employees were killed — and ended in a filibuster deadlock. The Manchin-Toomey proposal fell five votes short of the 60 needed to defeat a filibuster: Four Republicans broke ranks to support the compromise background-check bill, while four conservative Democrats opposed it.

In the ensuing three elections, the Democratic caucus’s ranks dropped from 54 to 47 senators. The new Republicans, such as Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), hail from the traditional conservative, pro-gun wing of the GOP.

Republicans struggle to respond in wake of El Paso, Dayton shootings

Toomey is well aware of the conservative lean of his newer colleagues and wants time to explain his 2013 proposal, something that he said previously was “reasonably well understood by many of my colleagues.”

“So if you want a successful outcome, which is what I want, then I think you work towards developing the coalition and the consensus so that you actually get the right outcome,” he said.

This go-slow mantra leaves gun-safety advocates spinning their wheels, fearing that another set of mass shootings will pass without any major legislation getting signed into law.

“Should we be doing more? Absolutely, yes,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D), whose South Florida district includes the Parkland school where 17 students and staff members were killed last year, said in a telephone interview Sunday. “There’s only so much of that that you can read about and watch without just throwing up your hands.”

Deutch wants House Democrats to come back into session and push more aggressive legislation, such as a renewed ban on assault weapons and limits on the number of bullets in gun magazines.

After all, only one mass shooting this decade is known to have come after a background check failed to deny a gun purchase to someone who should have been blocked — ending in 26 dead in 2017 at a Texas church. Almost every mass shooting involves weapons that allow for high-capacity magazines.

“They’re what these mass killers rely on,” Deutch said.

Democratic leaders have resisted those calls and instead want to continue applying pressure on McConnell and Republicans. And a vote on the House bill, even if it failed, would at least force the hand of several first-term Republicans who have never cast votes on serious gun laws.

Until such pressure sways McConnell and GOP senators, gun-safety supporters are bracing for an all-too-familiar outcome.

“I don’t know exactly whether we will get a different outcome this time,” Toomey said. “I certainly hope we do.”

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