A Defeat for Gun Control in the Senate

Republicans voted down a pair of Democratic efforts to expand background checks and bar suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms following the Orlando massacre.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

The status quo on gun control prevailed once again in the Senate on Monday, as lawmakers voted down a pair of amendments aimed at restricting access to firearms in the wake of last week’s massacre in Orlando.

Democratic proposals that would have expanded background checks at gun shows and blocked gun sales to individuals on a terrorist watch list each fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Republicans largely rejected the measures and instead voted for alternative bills that Democrats said would be ineffective—one designed to improve, but not expand, the existing background-check system and another that would require the FBI to seek a court order before stopping a gun sale to a suspected terrorist.

The votes followed a 15-hour filibuster last week by Democratic senators, but they were designed to fall short and therefore demonstrate a lack of consensus in the Senate on guns: Republican leaders subjected each of the four amendments to 60-vote threshold and rallied their members around proposals backed by the NRA. The result was a series of votes that fell almost entirely along party lines, just as they did in a previous effort to expand gun restrictions in December after the shooting rampage in San Bernadino, California. None of the four proposals advanced.

It was all a familiar ritual, the latest reaffirmation of deep political division that has followed several of the mass shootings in recent years. Republicans accused Democrats of demanding show votes ahead of the fall campaign and argued that they were compromising the due-process rights of Americans in their haste to keep guns out of terrorists’ hands. They also criticized Democrats for blaming guns more than Islamic terrorism for the Orlando nightclub attack. Democrats, in turn, charged that Republicans were again kowtowing to the gun lobby, blocking measures that had broad public support, and offering up alternatives that, while sounding tough, would actually weaken existing law.

The GOP proposals “aren’t even half-measures,” said Senator Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who led last week’s filibuster. An amendment from Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa to increase funding and coordination within the background-check system, he said, would result in more people having quicker access to guns because of the way it defines what is means to be “mentally incompetent” to buy a gun. “They’re just shields,” Murphy said. “They’re just shields for members who don’t want to stand up and do the right thing.”

The Republican proposals each received 53 votes, while 44 senators voted for the Democratic amendment to expand background checks and 47 voted for the Democrats’ proposal to block suspects on the watch list from buying guns. Two Republicans in tough reelection races this race, Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, each voted for the Democratic proposal to allow the FBI to block sales of guns to people on a terror watch list. Red-state Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Jon Tester of Montana all voted against their party on one or more of the amendments. Tester’s vote against closing the so-called “gun show loophole” was notable because he leads the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee.

Ayotte voted for both the Republican and Democratic proposals to address the watch list, even as she criticized both measures and predicted they would fail. “We know what’s going to happen,” she lamented before the vote. She said that she and other senators, including centrist Senator Susan Collins of Maine, would be unveiling what they hoped would be a bipartisan compromise on Tuesday that would give more power to federal authorities than the amendment from Republican Senator John Cornyn while restricting fewer people than the broader Democratic proposal, which Republicans believe could ensnare hundreds of thousands of people listed in the FBI’s database. “We believe this is a fair, workable solution,” Ayotte said. “It is a solution that makes sense.”

Whether that proposal can break the logjam—or even get a vote—was unclear on Monday night, as the Senate demonstrated once more that on the fraught issue of guns, it is not yet ready to move.