Senate effort on guns devolves into partisanship
Lawmakers look to elections for clarity
They agreed on the need to “do something” about guns in the wake of Orlando, but senators couldn’t find the sweet spot Monday, instead retreating to partisan corners and stalemating on competing plans to try to keep firearms out of the hands of terrorists.
Democrats said Republicans’ proposals didn’t go far enough, while GOP lawmakers said the Democrats’ plans ran roughshod over Second Amendment rights, denying Americans the right to buy a gun if they ended up on one of the FBI’s secret and error-prone watch lists.
All sides knew the outcome beforehand, and party leaders seemed content to take the issue to voters in November, hoping the elections will provide clarity that has escaped the debate for more than a decade.
“Mr. and Mrs. America, you have to stand up, and you have to say, ‘I’m going to vote only for people who will do something to close the terror gap,’” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who led the terrorist watch list proposal. “Maybe, just maybe, this next election can produce something.”
But rank-and-file Republicans blamed both sides, saying neither extreme seemed to want to find a middle-ground solution.
“Why aren’t we working on something that could actually get done?” pleaded Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who tried to broker a compromise after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, but saw those efforts doomed by the same gridlock that still prevails four years, and dozens of mass-shooting deaths, later.
Terrorist-inspired gunman Omar Mateen reignited the debate earlier this month with his assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando. Armed with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and a Glock handgun, he murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others over the span of a few hours.
Mateen purchased both firearms legally despite having twice been under investigation by the FBI for connections to terrorism. He had been listed on one of the FBI’s watch lists, but was removed when agents decided they couldn’t make a case against him.
Gun control advocates said his purchases exposed holes in the system.
Mrs. Feinstein said Congress should clamp down on sales to the approximately 1 million people who appear on any of several FBI watch lists. She said those who try to buy a gun but who are on the banned lists can challenge the decision in court — though authorities can insist on secrecy to preserve terrorism investigations.
“To me this isn’t a gun control issue, it’s really a national security issue,” she said.
Republicans, however, said the FBI lists are shrouded in mystery, riddled with errors and are maintained only by the FBI, without any judicial oversight. That means Americans could be denied their Second Amendment rights without due process of law.
Sen. John Cornyn offered a counterproposal that would have delayed a gun sale to people being investigated for terrorism for three days, giving authorities the chance to make a case in court.
Neither Mrs. Feinstein’s nor Mr. Cornyn’s proposals earned the 60 votes needed to advance, though Mr. Cornyn’s did better, garnering 53 votes compared to Mrs. Feinstein’s 47 votes.
Senators also shot down competing Republican and Democratic proposals to expand mental health reporting to the background check database. The votes produced intense passions and competing interests.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, voted for all four plans, while Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, voted against all four.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, voted against both Mrs. Feinstein’s and Mr. Cornyn’s terrorist watch list plans. She’s working on her own compromise.
But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who’s also trying to forge a compromise, voted for both the Feinstein and Cornyn proposals, saying she wanted to send a signal she’s willing to work with all sides.
“I hope that we can stop the politics,” said Ms. Ayotte, who is engaged in a fierce re-election battle this year.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called her “hypocritical” after the vote, questioning her motives for her stance and predicting voters will toss her from office.
“She’s doing everything but yoga on the Senate floor to try to justify what she’s doing,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they wanted to find a way to stop terrorists from getting weapons, but couldn’t agree on how broadly to draw the net, nor on what should happen once their name appears on a watch list.
Mrs. Feinstein, a past chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, revealed some details of the secret lists on the chamber floor Monday. She said the FBI’s no-fly list, which prevents people from boarding airplanes, has about 81,000 names — though fewer than 1,000 of those are U.S. persons, meaning either a citizen or lawful permanent resident.
A different list, the Transportation Security Administration’s “selectee list,” has some 28,000 names, though fewer than 1,700 of them are U.S. persons.
But Mrs. Feinstein wanted to cover far more people: the approximately 1 million names on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, of whom fewer than 5,000 are U.S. persons, she said.