WASHINGTON — Families of those killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut watched from the gallery as the Senate voted 68 to 31 on Thursday to consider a bundle of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence and massacres.
Each New England senator voted in favor of moving forward to debate on the proposed gun control legislation — Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts 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, even though it does not include a ban on assault weapons sales or magazine capacity limits, is a significant response.
“It is not perfect, but it is important. There’s a platform for more next week, but it’s a really important start,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, speaking on the Senate floor before the vote.
Last-minute dealmaking on Wednesday on a proposal for stronger background checks cleared the way for the vote. The compromise requires background checks for commercial transactions, including gun shows, but exempts transactions between family members.
Once debate begins, amendments will be introduced next week to add the ban on sales of assault weapons and limits on ammunition capacity. But they are unlikely to pass, say observers, because of opposition from Republicans as well as moderate Democrats from rural states.
The gun legislation has generated intense lobbying on Capitol Hill and in senators’ home states. Both Maine senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, share similar opposition to an assault weapons ban and skepticism on background checks. But Collins has come under heavy criticism from ad campaigns launched by both sides of the debate, while King has come through relatively unscathed. “I don’t know, he’s just lucky I guess,” Collins said.
New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, opposes a ban on high-capacity magazines, which Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, has said he will introduce as an amendment.
Blumenthal and Murphy spoke at length on the Senate floor in the days 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.
“Their courage and strength, so powerfully and impressively, have moved my colleagues in ways that I never would have expected.” Blumenthal said of the Newtown families who have spent the week around the Capitol.
An amendment to the background check measure by West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey will be introduced next week. It would alter the legislation introduced by Blumenthal and Murphy to allow for family transfers and for borrowing of weapons without a check.
The Connecticut senators said they support the amendment.
“I prefer a truly universal background check,” Blumenthal said 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 provisions, but he remained adamant that the Senate should vote, rather than allowing a filibuster to blocking the legislation.
“If there was ever an issue where all 100 of us should vote yes or no, it’s here,” Leahy said.
The vote to avoid a filibuster followed emotional pleas from family members. Jillian Soto, sister of Victoria Soto, a first grade teacher who died in an effort to protect her students at Sandy Hook, spoke to reporters on Thursday alongside Blumenthal and other family members of those killed on the morning of Dec. 14.
“We’re here to demand action and to demand that we receive a vote and that we’re allowed to have some peace of mind that our loved ones didn’t die for no reason,” said Soto.
President Obama flew Soto and other family members of the victims from Newtown to Washington on Air Force One on Monday. The families generally kept out of the spotlight while meeting privately with senators.
The president called Newtown families on Thursday to thank them.