Gun control supporters in the US Senate have won the first showdown over how to respond to the December school shootings in Connecticut, defeating an effort by conservatives to derail firearms restrictions before debate could even start.
The 68-31 vote yesterday gave an early burst of momentum to efforts by President Barack Obama and lawmakers to push fresh but modest gun curbs through Congress. The National Rifle Association, the top gun advocacy group, along with many Republicans and some Democrats, says the proposals go too far.
The Senate turns to the heart of the battle over curbing gun violence next Tuesday, when it considers a proposal to expand required federal background checks to gun shows and online firearms sales. Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he thinks the debate will last weeks.
The road to congressional approval of major restrictions remains difficult, particularly in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
The vote came four months after a gunman killed 20 young children and six members of staff at a Connecticut school, spurring Mr Obama and legislators to attempt to address firearms violence. Congress has not approved sweeping gun restrictions since enacting an assault weapons ban 19 years ago, a prohibition that lawmakers failed to renew a decade later.
Expanded background checks of gun buyers are at the core of the latest Democrat-led gun control drive. Other top proposals – including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines – will be offered as amendments during Senate debate but seem destined for defeat.
Background checks currently apply only to transactions handled by the country’s 55,000 licensed gun dealers. Advocates of expanding the system say too many sales escape the checks, which are supposed to keep weapons from going to criminals, the seriously mentally ill, and others
“The hard work starts now,” Mr Reid, a Democrat, said after the vote. As he spoke, relatives of the school shooting victims watching from the visitors’ gallery above the Senate floor wiped away tears and held hands, and some prayed.
Opponents argue that the restrictions would violate the US Constitution’s right to bear arms and would be ignored by criminals. Despite their defeat, conservatives were threatening to invoke a procedural rule forcing the Senate to wait 30 hours before considering amendments.
Republicans have also argued that legislation would stop relatives and friends selling firearms to each other and would “harass our neighbours, friends, and family”.