McCain emerges as key senator in expanding background checks

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has emerged as a key player if Senate Democrats are to have any chance of passing legislation to expand background checks for private sales of firearms.

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McCain and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) are at the top of a list of Republicans considered most likely to sign on to legislation expanding background checks after talks with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) stalled earlier this month.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has signaled he will likely support the yet-to-be-finalized proposal he negotiated with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks to cover private gun sales, according to Senate sources.

The proposal includes modifications to attract Republican support. One would let rural gun owners conduct background checks from their home computers. Another would create an appeals process for military veterans who have been declared mentally unfit to own a gun.

Expanding background checks is the centerpiece of President Obama’s proposal to change the nation’s gun laws in response to the mass shooting that killed 20 children in Newtown, Conn., last December.


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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has announced he will include background-check legislation in a firearms package scheduled for the Senate floor in April, even though it’s uncertain whether it could attract the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

McCain could provide crucial Republican support because he has a "B-plus" rating from the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington. His endorsement could bring along Heller, who has an "A" rating from the NRA.

Collins and Kirk have weaker credentials on gun issues within Republican circles. Collins has a "C-plus" rating from the NRA and Kirk has an "F."

Manchin, who has an "A" rating from the NRA, has taken the lead in shopping the background-check proposal to Republican lawmakers, said a Senate aide.

Manchin said he is shopping the proposal widely but declined Friday to reveal his lobbying list.

“Anybody and every one of them. I’m talking to everybody,” he said when asked to identify targeted Republican senators.

McCain said he has discussed extended background checks but declined to reveal any details from those talks.

“We’ve had discussions about the issue,” McCain said. “I never describe my discussions with other senators.”

A Senate aide said Collins has had conversations with Manchin over the past several weeks. Another Senate source said she has been approached about background checks.

Heller said Manchin also has approached him. He is open-minded about expanding background checks but shares the concerns Coburn had over requiring private sellers to maintain records.

Heller said he wants to make sure felons and people suffering from mental illness do not have access to guns but is unsure about how to implement expanded background checks.

“We’ve had a couple of conversations. We’ve had a couple of conversations,” he said.

Heller wants to make sure that expanding background checks does not lead to a national registry of gun owners.

“Coburn and I share that concern only because you have to keep those records from 15 to 20 years and even proponents of the legislation say they would subject law-abiding citizens to stings by the ATF,” he said in reference to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

But Heller said the record-keeping requirement for expanded background checks, which Schumer has insisted on, is a deal breaker.

“I wouldn’t say anything at this point is a deal breaker,” he said.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) is seen as another Republican who might support a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks. Coats has a "C-plus" NRA rating, which makes him an attractive target. But Coats on Friday denied that he has been approached by colleagues to back the Schumer-Manchin-Kirk proposal.

“I don’t know if I’m [on] the shopping list or not. No one has approached me,” said Coats.

Coats said he wants to see the details of legislation on background checks before making a decision. He said he would oppose Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons.

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"Sen. Kirk remains largely supportive of the background-check proposal so far negotiated between he and Sens. Manchin and Schumer, and he will continue negotiating for language to protect veterans' Second Amendment rights," said Lance Trover, Kirk's spokesman.

Gun control advocates on Friday praised Reid’s decision to include a background-check measure in the base bill he will bring to the Senate floor.

“I applaud Sen. Reid for sending a bill to the Senate floor that includes comprehensive, enforceable background checks — and for emphasizing that to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “This sensible reform — with overwhelming support from Americans, including gun owners — will save lives and keep our communities safer.”

Reid on Tuesday raised the possibility that he would leave it out of the base bill because of concern that Republicans might block the legislation if it included objectionable language on background checks.

On Thursday, Reid said he would include the background-check legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a party-line vote. That provision will likely not garner 60 votes, but Schumer and other gun-control advocates hope Republicans can be found in the next few weeks to support a bipartisan alternative to expand background checks.