U.S. Senate Republicans scuttle federal gun bill

Associated Press

Washington, D.C. In a last-minute turnaround, Senate Republicans
scuttled their election-year gun legislation on Tuesday, March 2
after Democrats added amendments to extend an assault weapons ban
and require background checks on all buyers at private gun shows to
the package.

The 90-8 vote against the bill handed Democrats and gun control
advocates an unexpected victory in the Republican-controlled
Congress. It all but eliminated any chance for gun legislation this
year.

“Twenty-four hours ago, I knew of no one who would have said we
would be sitting where we are right now,” said Mike Barnes,
president of the Brady Campaign gun-control group.

“The NRA’s highest legislative priority was just defeated,” he
said, referring to the National Rifle Association.

Beginning in September, the gun industry can resume making,
importing, and selling military-style semiautomatic weapons that
were outlawed a decade ago. Nonetheless, Democrats say they now
have the Senate on record as supporting the assault weapons ban by
a 52-47 vote, even though Republican leaders have vowed they won’t
allow the House to consider it this year.

“Now we know we have our vote and we will come back,” said
Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “If we can’t get it done by Sept.
13, then you can be sure it’s going to be in the presidential
campaign as a bona fide issue as to whether the American people
want AK47s, street sweepers, and Uzis sold once again.”

The NRA, a political juggernaut because of its 4 million
members, e-mailed senators in both parties just before the final
roll call urging them to vote against the bill after Democrats
succeeded in adding the gun-control measures to the
Republican-written legislation.

A week ago, the bill preventing lawsuits against gun
manufacturers and distributors because of gun crimes had 75
senators ready to vote for it.

“While we will continue to work to save the U.S. firearms
industry, we have said from the start that we would not allow this
bill to become a vehicle for added restrictions on the law-abiding
people of America,” said NRA vice president Wayne R. LaPierre Jr.
“Given this fact, we oppose final passage and will fight this issue
another day.”

Republican senators said they also may attempt to revive the
gunmaker-immunity bill.

“We will see if we have enough time to get it out this year,”
said Republican Sen. Larry Craig, the bill’s sponsor who was forced
to vote against his own legislation because of the Democratic
amendments. “I learned years ago, Don’t pass a bad bill.’ “

Democratic senators were grudgingly prepared to accept the
gunmaker immunity bill if they could get their two amendments along
with it.

“The immunity bill was a terrible bill,” said Democratic Sen.
Charles Schumer, of New York. “We’re better off at the end of the
day than we were at the beginning of the day.”

Several Republican senators voted for one or both of the gun
show and assault weapons ban amendments, enabling minority
Democrats to change the Republican’s bill. At their weekly caucus
luncheon, Republican senators were told to sit tight until the NRA
decided whether it would support the bill with the two Democratic
amendments.

After waiting for a couple of hours, Sen. John McCain, of
Arizona, one of the maverick Republicans, said he was told the NRA
wanted a no vote. “I voted yes,” he said, beaming.

On the final roll call, only two other Republicans voted for the
bill Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Democrats who voted for the final package were Minority Leader Tom
Daschle of South Dakota and Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John
Breaux of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Blanche
Lincoln of Arkansas.

Underlining the importance of Tuesday’s events to next fall’s
election, presidential contenders John Kerry of Massachusetts and
John Edwards of North Carolina broke away from the campaign trail
to cast their first Senate votes of the year in support of the
Democratic amendments.

The gunmaker-immunity package was an election-year priority for
the White House, congressional Republicans, and other conservative
groups as well as the NRA. All contend the gun industry is being
sued out of existence for making a legal product, though gun makers
have yet to lose a lawsuit.

The House last year passed a bill to shield gunmakers and
dealers from liability suits by crime victims. But Republican
leaders in the House refused to allow a vote on continuing for
another decade the assault weapons ban, which is to expire in
September.

The White House opposed the two Democratic amendments,
predicting their passage would kill the effort to immunize the gun
industry from lawsuits. “Some are simply more interested in
undermining that piece of legislation than they are in necessarily
getting the other legislation passed,” White House spokesman Scott
McClellan said Tuesday.

The Democratic amendments would have extended the ban on at
least 19 types of military-style assault weapons another 10 years
and required all buyers at private gun shows to go through
government background checks. Under current law, unlicensed gun
dealers at private shows are not required to ask for government
checks before selling weapons.

“Criminals and terrorists are exploiting this obvious loophole
in our gun safety laws,” McCain said.

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