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US Senate inches closer to gun control showdown after massacre

A resident holds a sign which reads 'AR-15s are weapons of mass destruction' as the motorcade transporting U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Orlando for the president's meeting with families of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Florida, US

The US Senate inched closer to scheduling votes on limited gun control measures after a Florida nightclub massacre, with Democrats challenging Republicans on Thursday to defy the national gun lobby and vote for new restrictions.

Senator Chris Murphy and fellow Democrats seized control of the Senate floor for 15 straight hours demanding congressional action.

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 US terrorism watch lists from buying guns.

The push for gun control legislation, which would be the first in the United States in more than 20 years, followed a gunman’s slaughter of 49 people at a gay Orlando nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, whose proposal would allow the US attorney general to stop any terrorist suspect from acquiring a gun, told reporters that the gun control votes would likely be held on Tuesday.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has joined the gun debate, announcing on Wednesday he would meet with the National Rifle Association, the country’s most powerful gun lobby, to talk about barring people who are on terrorism watch lists from buying guns.

Trump’s intervention was praised as an apparent move to the middle by one of his most severe critics, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a former presidential candidate.

DEMOCRATS SKEPTICAL

Democrats were deeply skeptical that Trump’s word signaled any sort of shift toward more Republican support for Democratic-backed gun control proposals.

“Donald Trump, like the Republicans, he’s talking the talk but he ain’t walking the walk,” the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer, told a news conference.

“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,” Schumer said.

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, a Republican, said on the Senate floor. He chastised Democrats for their 15 hours of speeches, calling it a “campaign talk-a-thon”.

Republicans, holding a 54-person majority in the 100-seat Senate, have blocked Democratic-backed gun control measures over the years, saying they infringe on a right to bear arms guaranteed by the US Constitution. Some Republican gun control measures – which Democrats have derided as toothless – have been defeated.

Even if the Senate acts on gun control in coming days, there are no guarantees the Republican-majority House of Representatives will follow suit. A bill requires passage in both houses to become law.

A senator from Connecticut, Murphy made an impassioned plea for action, saying his own strong desire for change stemmed from the slaughter of elementary schoolchildren at Sandy Hook in his 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 Feinstein and Republican John 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, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said on Thursday that 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.

Cornyn and Feinstein had been holding private talks on a possible compromise bill, but there was no evidence those talks had borne fruit.

Omar Mateen, the gunman in the Orlando shooting, had at one point been on a watch list of suspected terrorists but was taken off before the shooting.

Gun control has long been a bitterly divisive topic in the United States. The last major gun control measure, a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons such as the one used in Orlando on Sunday, passed in 1994. The ban expired 10 years later.

“We don’t take away a citizen’s rights without due process,” US House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, told reporters on Thursday when asked about the legislative efforts in the Senate. “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,” Ryan said.


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