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Senators quietly seek new path on gun control

Jeremy W. Peters

WASHINGTON -- Talks to revive gun control legislation are quietly underway on Capitol Hill as a bipartisan group of senators seeks a way to bridge the differences that led to last week's collapse of the most serious effort to overhaul the country's gun laws in 20 years.

Drawing on the lessons from battles in the 1980s and '90s over the Brady Bill, which failed in Congress several times before ultimately passing, gun control supporters believe they can prevail by working on a two-pronged strategy. First, they are identifying senators who might be willing to change their votes and support a background check system with fewer loopholes.

Second, they are looking to build a national campaign that would better harness overwhelming public support for universal background checks -- which many national polls put at near 90 percent approval -- to pressure lawmakers.

Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., have been talking in recent days about how they could persuade more senators to support their bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, which drew backing from only four Republicans last week.

"We're going to work it hard," Manchin said Thursday, adding that he was looking at tweaking the language of his bill in a way that he felt would satisfy the concerns of senators who, for example, felt that background checks on person-to-person gun sales would be too onerous for people who live in rural areas far from a sporting goods store.

Those concerns were an issue for Alaska's senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.

Meanwhile, a separate piece of gun legislation, an anti-trafficking bill, is the subject of talks between two Republican senators who voted no on the background check bill and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The two, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, are discussing ways they might support the bill, which would criminalize the shipping or transfer of guns to someone who is barred from possessing a firearm.

While the bill on its own falls short of what the families of victims of mass shootings have been pushing Congress to enact -- and is therefore less controversial -- some Democrats believe it could be a good starting point to build a broader bipartisan compromise.

"I think trafficking can be the base of the bill, the rock on which everything else stands," Gillibrand said. "I also think it's complimentary to background checks because, let's be honest, criminals aren't going to buy a gun and go through a background check. So if you really want to go after criminals, you have to have to do both."

Ayotte said Thursday that she would continue talking with Gillibrand and was confident that some areas of agreement, on areas like expanding mental health care, could be reached.

"There's a lot we have agreement on in terms of enforcing our current system," she said. "And so I certainly think we should look for the common elements, including the mental health piece, which I support as well, and try to move as much of that as possible forward."

Ayotte -- the only one out of 22 senators on the East Coast north of Virginia who voted against strengthening background checks -- has been the target lately of some of the most furious lobbying by gun control proponents. They have inundated local newspapers with letters to the editor denouncing her vote, run radio ads saying she "ignored the will of the people," and swamped her office with phone calls.

On Thursday, two receptionists placed one call after another on hold as they politely listened to callers vent and replied, "Thank you for your message."

Next week when Congress is in recess, gun control groups coordinating with the Obama committee Organizing for Action will be fanning out across the country in dozens of demonstrations at the offices of senators who voted down the background check bill.

As talks moved ahead on Capitol Hill, the White House was pressing ahead with its own efforts. Vice President Joe Biden summoned a group of gun control proponents to his office on Thursday -- including representatives from Michael R. Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Gabrielle Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions and the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence -- and reassured them that the issue had become his highest priority.

The vice president recalled the long struggle to enact the Brady Bill, which established a five-day waiting period to buy a gun. And he told them gun control would become his new campaign to end the Iraq war, according to two participants in the meeting, comparing it to the issue he devoted much of his energy to during President Barack Obama's first term.

The pressure campaign is evidently already starting to take its toll, the vice president added, because several senators have confided to him that they are feeling the backlash from constituents.

Those senators, he added, told him that they needed to be assured there was adequate support for expanded gun control to pass because they did not want to take such a great political risk on something that was doomed to fail. And some of them are already beginning to ask about what tweaks gun control proponents might entertain that could make the bills more palatable, the vice president said.

"It's not a question of really changing their minds for or against this policy," one of the meeting's participants said. "It's demonstrating that it's safe to do the right thing and politically unsafe not to."

 

 


By JEREMY W. PETERS
The New York Times