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Spurred by Orlando shooting, Senator Susan Collins offers a gun control compromise

US Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — With congressional leaders once again at a stalemate over how to respond to a mass shooting, the Senate’s most moderate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, is developing a compromise measure that would prevent some terrorism suspects from purchasing weapons, while sidestepping partisan flashpoints that have doomed similar legislation in the past and threaten to do so again next week.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has already scheduled votes for Monday on four proposals — two sponsored by Republicans and two by Democrats — but all four are expected to fail in a nearly identical replay of votes last December after the attack in San Bernardino, Calif.


“That’s what I am trying to avoid,” Collins said in a brief interview riding the subway from the Capitol back to her office Thursday evening. “I don’t want Groundhog Day here. I don’t want us to go through the same thing we went through last year with no result.”

With lawmakers feeling extreme pressure to take some action in the aftermath of last weekend’s shooting massacre in Orlando, Fla., the proposal by Collins is a long shot, but it seems to stand at least some chance of forging an agreement that has generally eluded lawmakers for decades amid a debate over how to balance gun rights and public safety.

The legislation being drafted by Collins would bar the sale of guns to terrorism suspects who appear on either the government’s no-fly list or the so-called “selectee” list, in which individuals are subjected to additional security screening before being allowed to board an airplane. Those lists are far more narrow than the federal terrorist screening database, which is the focus of a proposal sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, one of the four measures to be voted on Monday.


But while the gun restrictions proposed by Collins would target a narrower group of individuals, her measure does not require federal prosecutors to demonstrate “probable cause” of criminal terrorist activity required in an alternative to the Feinstein measure sponsored by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican.

Democrats say Cornyn’s measure, which will also be voted on Monday, sets such a high burden of proof that it renders useless the underlying gun restrictions.

Instead, Collins has proposed an appeals process that would award attorney’s fees to anyone who successfully challenged the government’s effort to prevent the sale of a firearm.

“If you are either on the no-fly list or the selectee list, which is the list where you are subjected to additional screening before you are allowed to board a plane, then you would be prohibited from purchasing a gun,” Collins said.

She said she agreed that Cornyn’s measure set a standard too difficult to meet.

“If probable cause is found then probably law enforcement could arrest you,” she said. “If you have got that, you are going to be arrested, unless they are leaving you out there in order to catch others.”

Collins has already succeeded in piquing the interest of Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a centrist Democrat from North Dakota who has had a strong hand in some of the Senate’s more unexpected bipartisan deals in recent years, including a measure that lifted the 40-year prohibition on crude oil exports.

A spokeswoman for Heitkamp, Abigail McDonough, said the senator was in talks with Collins and hopeful that an agreement could be reached.


“Senator Heitkamp believes there needs to be a real bipartisan discussion about what any bill to address the terror watch list issue would look like so that it actually addresses the issue at hand and gets enough bipartisan support to pass in the Senate,” McDonough said. “She’s currently participating in discussions to try to reach such a compromise.”

Collins said she had also been talking to Feinstein, as well as to an array of Republicans including Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Collins and Feinstein have each added language to their proposals aimed at addressing the situation in Orlando, in which the killer, Omar Mateen, had been on a government watch-list but was removed before he bought his guns. Though they focus on different lists, their proposals would flag for the FBI gun purchases by anyone who had been on the designated watch list within the last five years.

“The FBI is immediately notified that you have bought the gun and that you formerly were on one of these two lists,” she said. “Most likely that is going to lead them to put you back under surveillance or do other investigation and watch you closely. That’s an important provision.”