WASHINGTON — A decades-long battle over gun control in the United States could reach a critical stage next week in the U.S. Senate amid signs that Americans are more willing to accept limited restrictions after a Florida nightclub massacre.
It is far from likely any new measures will be approved in the short term. But the Orlando mass shooting and remarks from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that perhaps something should be done this time have fostered a mood that has made the unlikely seem at least remotely possible.
As President Barack Obama was in Orlando consoling the survivors of a rampage by a gunman who claimed allegiance to Islamic State militants, the U.S. Senate moved closer to scheduling votes on limited gun control measures.
As always, Democrats were challenging Republicans to vote for new restrictions and reject pressure from the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby that has been known to punish politicians who thwart its will.
Filibusters have become rare in the Senate, but U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and fellow Democrats set the U.S. Capitol abuzz by talking on the Senate floor for nearly 15 straight hours to demand that Congress act on gun control.
They ended their speeches before dawn, citing a Republican pledge to hold votes soon on measures to expand background checks on gun buyers and prevent people on U.S. terrorism watch lists from buying guns.
Welcoming the Senate’s plans for votes, Obama said in Orlando: “Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should meet these families and explain why that makes sense.”
Gun control is a potent issue in U.S. politics. Republicans, who control the Senate, have blocked Democratic-backed gun control measures over the years, saying they infringe on the right to bear arms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
A string of mass shootings across the United States in schoolhouses, churches, movie theaters and other public places has failed to break the deadlock.
The last major gun control measure was a ban in 1994 on semi-automatic assault weapons such as the one used in Orlando on Sunday. The ban expired 10 years later.
But Americans now seem increasingly ready to limit firearms after 49 people were shot to death in Orlando, although that may be a short-term response to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
About 71 percent of Americans, including eight out of 10 Democrats and nearly six out of 10 Republicans, favor at least moderate regulations and restrictions on guns, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from Monday to Thursday. That was up from 60 percent in late 2013 and late 2014.
While the Senate is expected to vote on Monday, according to John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, any move taken could be moot. Paul Ryan, the House of Representatives speaker, injected a note of caution at his weekly news conference.
“We don’t take away a citizen’s rights without due process,” said Ryan, the top U.S. elected Republican. “If you have a quick idea in the heat of the moment that says let’s take away a person’s rights without due process, we’re going to defend the Constitution.”
TALKING TO NRA
Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the Nov. 8 election, who has been endorsed by the NRA, jumped into the gun debate by saying he would meet with NRA leaders to talk about barring people who are on terrorism watch lists from buying guns.
“I’ll be looking at it very, very seriously — the terror watch list and the no-fly list, I’m going to be talking to the NRA about that and starting a real dialogue. I think a lot of people agree with me but I want to really hear what they have to say,” Trump told Fox News on Wednesday night.
Democrats were deeply skeptical that Trump’s word signaled any sort of shift toward more Republican support for Democratic-backed gun control proposals.
“He is going to meet with the NRA. … What’s he going to come out saying? ‘Oh the NRA and I agreed we shouldn’t have terrorists have guns,’ but doing nothing about it,” U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters.
No formal deal was announced, but Senate Republican aides said lawmakers were working on possible amendments to an appropriations bill funding the Commerce and Justice departments.
“We’ll try again today to move forward with amendments from both sides and once there is an agreement to do so we’ll update everyone,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. He chastised Democrats for their 15 hours of speeches, calling it a “campaign talkathon.”
A senator from Connecticut, Murphy made an impassioned plea for action, saying his own strong desire for change stemmed from the slaughter of elementary school children at Sandy Hook in his home state in December 2012.
“When we began, there was no commitment, no plan to debate these measures,” he said during the 15th hour of the filibuster. Murphy noted that holding votes did not guarantee gun restrictions would pass.
PAST FAILED EFFORTS
A similar scenario played out on the Senate floor in December following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people. Then, competing amendments by Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Cornyn on curbing weapons sales to people on terrorism watch lists failed. Those measures are likely to be among those voted on again by the Senate.
Cornyn said on Thursday he had reintroduced his proposal, which would require court approval within three days for a government ban on an individual’s attempt to buy a gun.
Democrats have said Cornyn’s plan is unworkable.