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Vote Forces Senate To Talk About Gun Control


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is reporting for us this week from Caracas, Venezuela. I'm David Greene, in Washington, Where the Senate is now officially moving towards debate on gun control legislation. To get there, Democratic leaders had to defeat a Republican filibuster yesterday, and they did so with the help of 16 Republicans. The procedural vote was a victory for gun control supporters, but as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, more battles lie ahead.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Twenty years. It's been 20 years. That's what you kept hearing around the Capitol yesterday, as senators reflected on how no major gun control legislation has hit the floor since the 1994 assault weapons ban. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said a darkness fell upon Washington after that law was passed.

REPRESENTATIVE CHUCK SCHUMER: For the last 20 years, we've been wandering in that darkness. Extreme groups who have become more extreme have dominated the landscape. We have spent almost all our time fighting rolling back the few protections we had, rather than creating new protections.

CHANG: And now, he says, the country is turning the page against groups like the National Rifle Association. Schumer's been one of the Democrats leading the charge to move gun control legislation through the Senate. And although a lot of senators wouldn't agree that the NRA is a waning power, Schumer did hit on something: talking about guns around here was almost taboo for a long time.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM KAINE: It's almost like the latter-day gag rule. It's the topic that cannot be discussed.

CHANG: Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia says it was the succession of tragedies in recent years that ripped away that gag: Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Newtown. Gun control is the issue that wasn't going to go away, and Thursday's vote now forces the Senate to talk about it. But Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas thinks the gun bill talks about the wrong things.

REPRSENTATIVE TED CRUZ: Washington sometimes devolves into a political circus that's not focused on actually fixing the problem.

CHANG: So Cruz tried to fight this political circus by, some would argue, staging one of his own. He was one of the Republicans trying to filibuster this week, because he believes the Senate package won't prevent tragedies like Newtown.

That package would expand background checks, increase penalties for illegal gun sales and provide more funding for school safety. Other Republicans who supported the filibuster - like Rob Portman of Ohio - says it's ultimately going to come down to the Constitution.

REPRESENATIVE ROB PORTMAN: If it is an infringement of Second Amendment rights, many of us are going to want to block it.

CHANG: In the coming days, the Senate will see a flurry of amendments from both sides of the aisle. There will proposals to ban assault weapons and to limit the size of ammunition magazines. There will also be proposals to expand gun rights, such as a measure that would make a state-issued permit to carry a concealed weapon valid in any other state.

And there will be amendments that are simply meant to stall the debate - probably lots of them.

DAVID WHEELER: Can you think of an important story that spurred legislation where it didn't come down to political gamesmanship in some way? I mean, that's the nature of our system.

CHANG: David Wheeler lost his son Ben when the shooter opened fire in Newtown last December. Wheeler's been in Washington most of this week, trying to persuade senators to pass the gun control bill. And I asked him: How would he feel if the legislation ultimately failed because of political maneuvers?

WHEELER: It doesn't offend me. I'm not concerned. This is a long, long race we're in. And what happens this week or next week certainly is important, but this is just the beginning. This is just the beginning. And I can tell you that there are a lot of people from Sandy Hook, Connecticut who feel that way.

CHANG: Debate starts next week on the amendments. No one knows quite how many, or exactly how long it will take. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.