Senators find gun-control compromise, background checks

Amendment seen as best opportunity to advance legislation

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. listens at left, as Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. announced Wednesday that they have reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. listens at left, as Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. announced Wednesday that they have reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers.

WASHINGTON — It was in front of an enormous painting by an artist from Ohio that a Republican from Pennsylvania and a Democrat from West Virginia shared perhaps the most important handshake of the year.

There, overlooking William Powell’s fabled “Battle of Lake Erie” in the U.S. Capitol, Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin set off a different kind of battle, one whose echoes will carry far beyond Washington.

Their bipartisan amendment on gun control already has attracted fire from the right, with Mr. Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican, immediately being characterized as a traitor for departing from the core conservative belief in nearly unfettered gun rights.

Oliver Hazard Perry, the commander depicted in the painting, swiftly overtook the Brig Niagara as bullets rained on his rowboat, but with several Republicans threatening to filibuster, the battle in Washington could be more protracted.

With pressure building on both sides, the question remains whether Mr. Toomey will emerge as a hero or renegade, departing this legislative battle much like the forlorn figure floating away in the painting.

At the crux of the amendment is a requirement for sellers to conduct background checks whether they do business in firearms stores, at gun shows, or over the Internet. Noncommercial transactions — such as between friends, neighbors, or relatives — would remain exempt.

The proposal includes something for Second Amendment advocates too. For example, it would allow active military — who now are only permitted to buy guns where they are stationed — to also purchase them in their home states.

The proposal does not include Democrat-supported measures to require background checks even for private gun purchases, to outlaw high-capacity magazines, and to reinstitute an expired ban on assault weapons.

Still, the Manchin-Toomey plan is widely viewed as the Senate’s best chance for advancing gun-control legislation.

The proposal doesn’t go as far as President Obama wants, but he said Wednesday that it’s a good start.

“The agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress. It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence,” the President said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has assured Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin he will allow a vote on their amendment. First, though, the underlying bill needs to clear a procedural hurdle today. Sixty votes are required to overcome a filibuster.

A number of other Republicans have competing amendments that would increase penalties for gun trafficking, provide more money for school safety programs, and strengthen requirements for reporting mental health problems.

Democrats including Mr. Obama, meanwhile, want to go much further by requiring background checks for all transfers of gun ownership, restricting magazine capacity, and banning assault rifles.

Mr. Toomey, who normally expends his political capital on fiscal issues rather than culture wars, said he was compelled to intervene. He said the December school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., made it obvious Congress had to do something, and he didn’t want legislation to go too far.

“There are a number of gun proposals that I think would infringe on Second Amendment rights,” he said.

His own proposal doesn’t, he said.

“Candidly, I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control. I think it’s common sense. If you pass a criminal background check, you get to buy a gun,” Mr. Toomey said.

In a statement Wednesday, NRA leaders said the background checks would not have prevented the Newtown massacre because shooter Adam Lanza used a gun his mother had legally purchased.

“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,” the NRA said in a statement Wednesday.

“We have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Tracie Mauriello at:, or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.