WASHINGTON — Six months after a shooting spree in Connecticut left 26 dead, family members of those killed in Newtown joined with gun-control advocates to launch a new effort to pass legislation that would require background checks for gun buyers.
Prospects for the legislation are uncertain, and efforts to restrict assault weapons — an initial aim of some lawmakers — have faded. But Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada said earlier this week he is confident that he can gain the needed votes to pass legislation requiring background checks. The measure fell six votes short of the 60 needed to stop a filibuster earlier this year.
Reid said his team of senators has been “doing well” working with at least two Republicans who previously voted against the measure, but he declined to name them. He said the Senate will vote again when he adds four more to the list.
“Background checks will pass the Senate. It’s only a matter of time,” Reid said.
The measure faces an even steeper climb in the Republican-controlled House. But minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she is making “great progress” on getting more signatures to an identical background check bill cosponsored by 181 members.
“There is life in the House,” Pelosi said. “I think it’s really important to focus on getting as many supporters in the House on the bill so that the senators don’t think they’re taking a political risk . . . on a bill that’s not going to see a light in the House.”
The bill’s backers are counting on appeals from the Newtown families, some of whom spread across Capitol Hill this week to meet with legislators and who also spoke at an emotional press conference.
Jillian Soto, sister of Sandy Hook Elementary teacher Victoria Soto, who died protecting her students, urged lawmakers to reconsider gun legislation that failed to pass the Senate in April.
“Inaction is unacceptable at the cost of so many innocent lives,” Soto said at a Thursday press conference with congressional leaders and other family members of Newtown victims. “We will continue to fight until Congress stands up and does something to make us safer from gun violence.”
Soto attended a ceremony in Newtown on Friday to remember the victims and the 6,000 people killed by gun violence in the six months since the Sandy Hook shootings.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said a vote on the measure will most likely come after Congress returns from summer recess in September.
In an interview, Murphy echoed Reid and said there were at least two Republicans who are “movable” on the issue. But, according to Murphy, it will take time and possibly changes to the bill to reach an agreement that will bring the needed six votes.
“Realistically, we are going to need the summer to work out a new compromise,” Murphy said. “An agreement is not eminent.”
Opponents have questioned whether background checks work. Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said when the previous bill was up for debate that “expanded background checks would not have prevented Newtown,” according to the Associated Press. “Criminals do not submit to background checks.”
Reid, meanwhile, has said he will not accept a “watered down” version of the background check bill and expects to introduce a bill nearly identical to the one Senators Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican, negotiated before April’s vote.
That bill would allow guns to be exchanged without a background check between family members and would prohibit the establishment of a national registry of gun owners — two provisions added to appease senators worried about violating Second Amendment rights.
But the National Rifle Association has begun to place political pressure on Manchin for sponsoring the background check compromise, which may spell trouble for any further efforts to sway on-the-fence senators to sign on to his bill.
The NRA once endorsed Manchin, but, according to the Associated Press, plans to spend $100,000 airing an ad in West Virginia over the next two weeks that urges voters to “Tell Senator Manchin to honor his commitment to the Second Amendment.”
Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the moment has passed for persuading conservative members of Congress to vote to expand background checks for gun owners.
“I don’t think there is the pressure out there that they think they can generate. They had their shot,” said Heritage Action for America spokesman Dan Holler. “I don’t think any amount of meetings are going to change that.”
Though Holler couldn’t be sure that “no one would flip,” he said the legislative calendar is too full to bring up gun control again. The Senate is likely to be busy with immigration this summer and will have to address appropriations and the debt ceiling when they return from summer recess.
But Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, dismissed the idea that it’s too late to change minds.
“There’s a lot of talk today about losing momentum, diminishing passion. We’re here to say the momentum is undiminished, the passion is stronger, if anything,” Blumenthal said at the press conference Thursday. “We lost the first vote. But we’re going to win the last vote. . . . And I can guarantee we’ll have another vote. And I believe that we will win.”