Avoiding filibuster, Senate agrees by wide margin to consider gun legislation

WASHINGTON—Families of those lost in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School watched from the gallery as the Senate voted Thursday 68 to 31 to consider a bundle of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence and massacres.

Each New England Senator voted in favor of moving forward with the proposed gun control legislation — Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren showing her vote with a simple thumbs-up and a smile.

With the vote, the Senate avoided the threat of a Republican-led filibuster and cleared the way for votes on the package of legislation and amendments next week. Senators who support stronger gun laws said the legislation, which does not include a ban on assault weapons sales or magazine capacity limits, is a significant response.

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“It is not perfect, but it is important. There’s a platform for more next week, but it’s a really important start,” said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, speaking on the Senate floor before the vote.

Last-minute dealmaking Wednesday on a proposal for stronger background checks cleared the way for the vote to proceed. The compromise requires background checks for commercial transactions, including gun shows, but allows for an exemption for transactions between family members.

Once debate begins, amendments will be introduced next week to add the ban on sales of assault weapons and magazine capacity limits.

The gun legislation has generated intense lobbying on Capitol Hill and in senators’ home states.

Although both Maine senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, share similar opposition to assault weapons ban and skepticism on background checks. But Collins has come under heavy fire from ad campaigns launched by both sides of the gun debate, while King has come through relatively unscathed.

“I’m unclear why when Senator King and I have very similar position on a lot of these issues I’m being singled out by both sides,” Collins said. “ I don’t know, he’s just lucky I guess.”

New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte opposes a ban on high-capacity magazines, which Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal has said he will introduce as an amendment.

Blumenthal and his Connecticut colleague Senator Chris Murphy spoke tirelessly on the Senate floor in the days and hours leading up to Thursday’s vote, making emotional appeals by holding up pictures of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.

After the vote Thursday to proceed to debate, Blumenthal credited the families of the Sandy Hook victims with moving the Senate to consider gun legislation.

“They are the reason that we have reached this point,” Blumenthal said of the Newtown families who have spent the week around the Capitol. “Their courage and strength, so powerfully and impressively, has moved my colleagues in ways that I never would have expected.”

An amendment to the background check bill by West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey changed legislation introduced by Blumenthal and Murphy to allow for family transfers and weapons borrowing without a background check.

The Connecticut senators said they support the amendment.

“I prefer a truly universal background check,” Blumenthal told reporters after Thursday’s vote. “But this measure is a vast improvement over current law, and it moves us forward toward an even stronger comprehensive strategy, so I believe it provides a model for going forward.”

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not said how he will vote on any of the gun provisions, but on Thursday he remained adamant that the Senate should vote, rather than allowing a filibuster to blocking the legislation.

“If there was a ever an issue where all 100 of us should vote yes or no, it’s here,” said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.