Bipartisan Group Of Senators Agrees To Background Check Plan

More than three months after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Senate is poised to bring a gun bill to the floor on Thursday. It's far weaker than what gun control advocates had hoped for, but nonetheless faces a Republican filibuster because gun rights groups say it goes too far.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Two senators - one Republican, one Democrat - announced this morning they've come up with a plan to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales. Debate over the much anticipated gun legislation is expected to begin tomorrow in the Senate. Ahead of that debate, NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, family members of children killed in the Newtown shootings have intensified their efforts to reach the senators hovering in the middle.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: For David Wheeler, the months since his son Ben was killed by a gunman in Newtown have been spent figuring out how best to be a father. He's sitting in a hotel room in Washington this morning getting ready to board a bus to the Capitol with 10 other people who also lost loved ones last December. Wheeler says by lobbying for more gun control, he's still being a parent to Ben.

DAVID WHEELER: I have a moral obligation as a parent to care for my children and that's what this is. That's what I'm doing. I'm caring for my children.

CHANG: Wheeler pulls a silver chain out from under his collar.

WHEELER: I wear a pendant that has some of Ben's ashes. And so, Ben is with me in a very physical way.

CHANG: But these personal stories like David Wheeler's then become just part of the political calculations of many senators. The Senate package has already dropped an assault weapons ban and a limit on ammunition magazines. And just today, after weeks of negotiating with several Republican senators, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he's finally reached a deal on background checks.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: Today's agreement is a first step in a common ground that all of us agree is crucial to keep guns out of dangerous hands and to keep our children safe.

CHANG: Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania now form a bipartisan backdrop Democrats have been searching for - two senators with A grades from the NRA, both from gun country. The thinking is a conservative like Toomey can provide political cover to other Republicans and conservative Democrats to vote yes on background checks.

The two are pushing a plan to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales and to make sure records of those sales will be kept to prosecute gun crimes in the future. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas says he worries about the federal government getting the power to confiscate weapons.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: For a so-called universal background check to work, the federal government would have to maintain a registry, a federal government list of every firearm owned by every person in this country.

CHANG: But the compromise proposal does not create a registry. It just extends existing record-keeping requirements to other commercial sales. No matter, Cruz and 12 Republicans still pledge they're going to try to block debate on any gun legislation tomorrow, not only on background checks, but also on increasing school safety funding and stiffening penalties for gun trafficking.

Senate leaders say there are enough Republicans on their side to defeat the filibuster - like John McCain of Arizona, for example.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: It's incomprehensible to me that we would not move forward with debate and amendments on an issue this important to the American people.

CHANG: But for some senators, moving forward with this debate is going to be downright uncomfortable, especially for Democrats facing reelection in states with a lot of gun owners, such as Max Baucus of Montana. He and several other Democrats in red states have been especially coy about where they're leaning on the gun bills. All Baucus would say was this...

SENATOR MAX BAUCUS: My primary focus is the state of Montana, representing Montana. They are my employers. I'm just an employee.

CHANG: And even if any gun bill does pass the Senate, it would need to go on to the Republican-controlled House, where a much tougher fight's expected. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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