WASHINGTON — Arkansas Sens. Mark Pryor and John Boozman voted unsuccessfully Thursday to block Senate action on gun control legislation proposed in response to the December school massacre in Connecticut.
The Senate voted, 68-31, to move ahead with legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases, increase penalties on gun traffickers and enhance school safety. A 60-vote majority was needed.
Debate will likely extend for several weeks as lawmakers consider amendments to the bill, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"The hard work starts now," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote.
Pryor and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska were the only Democrats to vote against debating the issue. Both are expected to face difficult re-election campaigns in 2014 in states where passions run strongly for Second Amendment gun rights.
"My state is home to thousands of hunters and gun owners just like me who will not support a bill that violates their Second Amendment rights," Pryor said. "After spending weeks at home, I’ve determined that this bill is too broad and unworkable. That’s why I joined a bipartisan group of senators to prevent the Senate from taking up this measure."
Sixteen Republicans, including Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, voted to allow the gun safety bill to move forward, some of whom are almost certain to oppose any bill that they view would unduly trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens to own a gun.
Boozman said he voted to block debate because he does not support the proposed legislation.
"While I am supportive of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and those with mental illnesses, this legislation does not achieve that goal. Forcing a 60-vote threshold when limiting constitutional rights is something the American people deserve," Boozman said.
In supporting debate, Coburn said he was not endorsing the bill itself.
"Today’s vote was an opportunity for senators to do what they were elected to do and begin debate on a critical issue in our country," he said. "I will not support ending debate and moving to final passage of any bill that compromises the Second Amendment rights or the privacy of law-abiding citizens."
Congress has not enacted major gun control legislation in nearly two decades but the issue has gained steam in the last four months since Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six adults in a five-minute span before taking his own life.
President Barack Obama has called on Congress to act on gun safety legislation – including renewing a 1994 ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.
More than a dozen family members of those slain in Newtown travelled via Air Force One to Washington to lobby senators for action on gun safety. Pryor met with them on Wednesday. They did not meet with Boozman.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that the Newtown families had played a "profound and significant role" in convincing the Senate to take up the issue. A week ago, he said, it appeared unlikely that proponents would reach the 60-vote threshold needed to begin debate.
Also helping to move the issue forward were the efforts of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who found common ground on a proposal to expand background checks to include most private sales of guns.
The National Rifle Association has announced its "unequivocal" opposition to the gun bill as proposed and the compromise on background checks reached by Manchin and Toomey.
"This legislation would criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring friends, neighbors and many family members to get government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution," said Chris Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
Cox called the Manchin-Toomey compromise "misguided," saying expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep children safe in their schools.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence thanked senators who voted in favor of starting debate on gun safety legislation.
"We are optimistic that this bill will make a dramatic difference in reducing gun violence. The American people are raising their voices in calls for action and today the Senate listened," said Brady Campaign President Dan Gross. "They have given the victims and families of victims of gun violence what they deserve. A vote for real meaningful change."