April 10, 2013 6:28 pm

Cross-party group in US gun control deal

A cross-party group of US senators on Wednesday unveiled a bipartisan agreement to try to counter gun violence, promoting a bill that would expand background checks for gun buyers but that falls well short of the sweeping changes promoted after the Newtown school shootings.

The long-awaited deal has been crafted to win enough Republican support to pass in the Senate, with the first vote expected on Thursday. It represented a major breakthrough for a bill that was considered in peril just 24 hours before.

But it was immediately criticised by both the National Rifle Association, the pro-gun lobby group, and gun control advocates calling for tough new measures to prevent shooting rampages.

The bill would require all those buying firearms commercially to pass a background check. This would close the “gun show loophole” by requiring people buying firearms at shows to submit to a check, and would also apply to the booming business of online gun sales.

These checks would have to be properly recorded so that sellers could prove to law enforcement officials that they had been carried out.

However, people who privately buy guns from family or friends will not have to go through checks, meaning the measure falls short of the universal checks that President Barack Obama called for in the wake of the Newtown shootings in December, when 26 people were killed at a Connecticut school.

The deal would also penalise states that did not submit records of criminals and the mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But it would specifically ban “the federal government from creating a national firearms registry”.

“We strengthen rights of law-abiding gun owners,” said Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, who has an A-rating from the NRA, and who is one of the authors of the bill. The background checks would “keep people from having guns who shouldn’t have them”, he told a press conference on Wednesday.

Pat Toomey, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said background checks did not amount to gun control.

“I think it’s just common sense,” Mr Toomey said, standing next to Mr Manchin. “If you pass . . . you get to buy a gun. It’s the people who fail that we don’t want having guns.”

The Senate will hold a preliminary procedural vote on Thursday evening, paving the way for the upper chamber to begin debating the Manchin-Toomey deal. A slew of Republican senators had threatened to filibuster the vote, preventing discussion, but they are expected to back away from this now that a cross-party compromise has been reached.

President Barack Obama applauded Mr Manchin and Mr Toomey for brokering the deal, but also sought to distance himself from it, apparently aware that his stamp on the bill would make it harder for Republicans to support it.

“This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,” he said in a statement. “But the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress. It recognises that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.”

Mr Obama urged the Senate to pass the bill and encouraged the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where passage will be much more difficult, to do the same.

We have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows

- National Rifle Association

The NRA sharply criticised the deal, saying that expanding background checks at gun shows “will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools”.

“While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘universal’ background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows,” the group said in a statement. Mr Obama and Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor and gun control advocate, have been pushing for sweeping changes to firearms laws. In the days after Newtown, the president laid out a plan that included banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines such as those used in Newtown and other rampages last year.

But momentum for change has ebbed as political realities set in. Gun control is one of the most sensitive issues in American politics, with many people on both sides of the political divide closely guarding their constitutional right to bear arms.

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