Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday announced a deal to expand background checks for gun sales, paving the way for Senate passage of gun-violence legislation.
It would exempt gun sales and transfers between friends and acquaintances without the help of an online intermediary.
"The events at Newtown, surely the events at Newtown, changed us all,” said Manchin, referring to the mass shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 elementary school children in December.
To address concerns of Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the legislation explicitly bans the federal government from creating a national firearms registry and imposes criminal penalties for persons who misuse firearm records.
Toomey’s support for the proposal is a major victory for gun-control advocates who want to expand background checks because he has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). He will give cover to centrist Democrats facing reelection next year, such as Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) to vote for the gun-violence bill.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control; I think it’s just common sense,” said Toomey. “If you pass a criminal background check, you get to by a gun. It’s not a problem. It’s the people who fail a criminal or mental health background check that we don’t want having guns."
Toomey says he has talked to senators on both sides of the aisle on his new proposal, but declined to speak for them. He added, however, the Toomey/Manchin plan has attracted preliminary support from House Republicans.
"I know there are substantial number of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach," said Toomey, a former House member. "There are definitely Republicans in the House that support this."
Toomey, a former head of the conservative Club for Growth, may now lose that NRA rating, but said he was more concerned about finding a legislative solution to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has taken the lead for Democrats in pushing expanded background checks, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has an F rating from the NRA, also support the deal. Schumer did not appear at the press conference.
Gun-control groups briefed on the main points of the emerging deal endorsed it.
“The deal, as I understand it, is a good deal. It is significantly less than true universal background checks but would make it harder for criminals to exploit the easiest avenues for obtaining illegal guns,” said a gun-control advocate briefed on the deal. “If I go online or to a gun show or to a classified ad to buy a gun, I have to undergo a background check and a record will be kept.
“It won’t cover every transaction, but it will make it much harder for straw purchasers to buy guns in bulk and sell them,” said the source.
Failure to meet the background-check requirement would be classified as a felony, said the source.
Manchin declined to comment on the penalty for failure to conduct background checks for guns purchased at gun shows or online. He said his office would soon provide a detailed breakdown of the legislation.
The NRA immediately criticized the proposal as unnecessary.
“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,” a spokesman for the group said in a statement.
The NRA claimed a measure of victory by noting the proposal was scaled back from the “universal” background checks the White House said it wants.
“While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and [New York] 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 spokesman said. “The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedy in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson.”
The Manchin-Toomey deal hews closely to the proposal Manchin and Schumer floated in late March before Congress left town for a two-week recess.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday filed a motion to move forward on a gun-control bill, setting up a preliminary Thursday vote on whether to proceed and votes on amendments as early as next week.
The Reid bill includes placeholder language drafted by Schumer to expand background checks, which failed to garner a single Republican vote in the Judiciary Committee. Reid feels confident he can muster 60 votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor. It remains to be seen whether he will attempt to substitute the Manchin-Toomey language before the package comes to the floor or schedule a vote to amend it once the floor debate begins.
Hopes for a deal on background checks have rested for days in the talks between Manchin, a centrist Democrat with an A rating from the NRA, and Toomey, who represents a state that has leaned toward Democrats in presidential election years. Toomey is up for reelection in 2016, the next presidential election year.
A bipartisan agreement on background checks, the centerpiece of President Obama’s gun-control agenda, paves the way for Senate passage of the gun-violence package. A proposal sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to reimplement the federal assault weapons ban is expected to fail. Reid last month said it would fail to win even 40 votes.
An amendment to ban high-capacity ammunition clips also faces an uphill path.
Despite Toomey’s support for expanding background checks, many Republicans are expected to vote against it. Many Republicans argue existing background check laws aren’t enforced and raise concerns that expanding background-checks accompanied with strict record keeping could lead to a federal gun registry.
Coburn, who spent weeks exploring a possible deal with Schumer on expanding background checks, says law-abiding gun owners should not be saddled with paperwork requirements for exercising their Second-Amendment rights.
Democrats have blasted the NRA for opposing expanded background checks. They say expanded record keeping would not lead to a federal database of gun owners.
This story was posted at 7:57 a.m. and last updated at 3:06 p.m.