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Senate readies for historic gun debate

Days if not weeks of debate over one of the most emotionally and politically charged topics in America are set to kick off Tuesday, as a decades-shattering battle over U.S. gun laws comes to a head in the Senate.

Fresh off a 68-to-31 floor vote to dwarf filibuster threats from some conservative purists and take up the gun-control bill tabled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., senators this week are slated to discuss measures that would expand background checks on gun purchases, create a federal gun trafficking status, bolster school safety and form a national commission on mass violence. Family members of the tragedy that sparked the newfound uproar over gun violence - December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. - lobbied on the Hill last week for stricter gun regulations.

Kingpins with stakes in either side spent the weekend hawking their agendas: Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is "confident," he said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," that he and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., will be able to muster enough Republican support in the Senate to pass an amendment that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Their proposal stands atop the lineup of legislation to consider this week, and will likely come up Tuesday.

"We're close," said Toomey said, appearing with Manchin. "We're discussing with colleagues on both sides. We've got bipartisan support, but there is bipartisan opposition."

Toomey and Manchin, along with Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced last week they had struck a bipartisan deal, which would expand background checks for gun purchases to all commercial sales - including at gun shows and via the Internet. On Saturday, Maine Sen. Susan Collins became the third Republican to publicly back the proposal; Toomey said others have unofficially committed.

"It's very hard to say what amendments may succeed and which may fail," Toomey conceded. But, he added, "ours, I think, just strikes the right balance.

"... One quick example," he continued, "under current law, a veteran can very easily be denied Second Amendment rights. A social worker at [the Department of Veterans Affairs] can decide that this person is having trouble handling their personal finances, and bingo, they're denied their Second Amendment rights. We create a mechanism by which they can simply challenge and adjudicate that. It's very reasonable."

The amendment is expected to pass without much of a spectacle, but Schumer, on ABC's "This Week," predicted a "tough fight" ahead: "It's a hard road," he said. "Not all of the Republicans who voted to allow debate are going to vote with us on background checks. So, it's going to be a tough fight to even get the 60 votes we need for the Manchin-Toomey proposal."

In a joint appearance on "Fox News Sunday," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, both declined to say whether their respective sides have the votes to pass or derail the amendment.

"We haven't whipped it," Durbin said. "I can tell you this: When it gets down to it, you've got to ask the basic question: Should we try to keep guns out of the hands of felons and people so mentally unstable they shouldn't own a firearm. If the answer is 'yes,' Manchin-Toomey is a step in the right direction." Cornyn countered: "If Manchin-Toomey were the law of the land today, none of the four of the most recent gun tragedies would have been prevented."

Though the amendment would tighten current law, it's not as far-reaching as the proposal President Obama and Senate Democrats offered in the months following the mass shooting in Newtown that left 20 children and six of their educators dead. Manchin predicted opposition won't come exclusively from the right.

"This is not universal, let me be very clear," Manchin said. "This is a criminal and mental background check bill; only at gun shows and Internet sales. There's going to be some people who said you didn't go far enough. Some are saying you went too far. But if they'll look at the bill, what we did, we did right. And we have cut down the loophole in the gun shows and those on Internet sales, and that's what we tried to do. And we made no exceptions on that."

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah - an original in the Senate's limited-government-focused tea party caucus - argued the Manchin-Toomey amendment "would serve primarily to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens, while doing little of anything to prevent tragedies like [Newtown] from occurring in the future." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in the same segment said the amendment serves to protect the Second Amendment.

"We're not undermining Second Amendment rights by saying criminals have to go through a background check before they can buy that weapon or straw purchasers and trafficker can't be stemming their guns straight into these communities," she said. Toomey, on "Face the Nation," agreed that not "a single word" in the legislation "in any way infringes on the Second Amendment rights of a law-abiding citizen."

"...We think that the laws that make it illegal now for a criminal, a potentially violent, dangerously, mentally ill person, to have a weapon, that's the law of the land. We think that makes sense," he continued. "And so, I think when people see the bill they're going to support it."

Former astronaut Mark Kelly, also on "Face the Nation," said he and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who continues to recover from a 2011 assassination attempt that left six dead and 11 wounded, will be on Capitol Hill this week to try to push legislation like the Manchin-Toomey amendment out of the Senate and into the House. He said expansion of the current background check system would be "a huge success."

"If we get that passed, and I think we will, it is a big deal," Kelly said. "Right now, 40 percent of guns are bought at gun shows or through, over the internet without a background check. So it's very easy for the criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, to get a gun. So closing those loopholes, I think, is the number one thing we can do to reduce gun violence in this country."

Some Republicans have voiced concern that more extensive background checks will lead to a federal registry or result in door-to-door weapons confiscation. Toomey cited such worries as "misconceptions about what's in this bill - what it does," and pointed to the provision outlining private gun vendors - not the government - would bear the responsibility of maintaining sales records.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who met last week with the families of the 26 Newtown victims when they came to lobby on Capitol Hill, called the meeting an "indescribable experience." But he cautioned against any bill that places guns at the center of the problem: "The debate needs to be about violence," he said. "My skepticism about gun laws is that criminals don't follow the law, they don't care what the law is. You can pass any law you want; criminals, by definition, they're criminals."

Manchin suggested Rubio read the bill, which is "only 49 pages," but said he understands the pressure on lawmakers who are in "very difficult districts."

"We came here to do something," Manchin said. "We've got a chance to make a difference in people's lives. We have a chance to save lives and not infringe on law-abiding citizens of this country, gun owners like myself and Pat [Toomey]. We have that opportunity, and God help us if we don't do it."

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