June 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
4 gun safety measures fail in Senate despite Orlando shooting

Dianne Feinstein, Democratic Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) submitted amendment to bar individuals suspected of terrorist activity from purchasing a gun. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., leaving 49 people dead and 53 wounded was enough for the U.S. Senate to vote on gun safety legislation Monday, but not enough to pass the measures.

Four gun control measures — two sponsored by Democrats, two by Republicans — were submitted in the form of amendments to major commerce and justice spending legislation and defeated on the floor. The measures were expected to fail; under the agreement of Senate leaders, each of the amendments needed to overcome a 60-threshold to pass.

One measure was sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who proposed a amendment based on the terrorist “no-fly” list that would have enabled the U.S. attorney general to deny the purchase of firearms to someone under the “reasonable suspicion” — which is a lesser standard than “probable cause” — of being engaged in terrorism activities.

The measure, backed by the U.S. Justice Department, also would have flagged individuals seeking to buy firearms if they had been under federal terrorism investigation in the past five years, which potentially would have the blocked the sale of weapons to Orlando shooter Omar Mateen because he was subject to such an investigation that discontinued in 2014.

The measure failed on a 47-53 vote on largely party line basis with Democrats voting “yes” and Republicans voting “no,” although Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) broke ranks to vote “yes” and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) voted “no.”

Another Democratic measure was sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who after the Orlando shooting led Senate Democrats in a 15-hour filibuster last week to force a vote on the gun safety measures.

The Murphy amendment would have expanded the background check system and would have clarified individuals “adjudicated as a mental defective” are prohibited from buying a gun. The measure also would have closed the “gun show loophole” by requiring a background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows.

The measure failed on a 44-56 vote with Democrats voting “yes” and Republicans voting against the measure, although Heitkamp, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) joined Republicans to vote “no” and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voted “yes.”

Although Republicans also introduced amendments, Democrats criticized them as being ineffective in preventing dangerous people from obtaining firearms.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced an amendment that would have alerted the attorney general if an individual sought to buy a gun who within the previous five years was investigated as a known or suspected terrorist. At that time, the federal government could have been able to delay individual’s purchase for no more than three business days to file an emergency petition before a court to block the sale. The individual seeking to purchase a firearm would be notified of such a proceeding and given the opportunity to contest the transaction.

The measure, endorsed by the National Rifle Association, failed on a 53-47 vote with Republicans generally voting in the affirmative and Democrats in the negative, although Kirk, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined Democrats to vote “no” and Manchin and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) voted “yes.”

The other Republican proposal, submitted by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), would have expanded the background check system and address people with mental illnesses seeking to purchase a firearm. The measure failed on a 53-47 vote with Kirk and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) voting “no” and Donnelly voting “yes.”

After the votes on the amendments, the Senate voted a second time on the Murphy amendment to table the measure, which succeeded on a vote of 56-42 with Manchin, Tester and Heitkamp joining Republicans to vote “yes.”

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the votes his organization is “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.

“For decades, LGBTQ people have been a target for bias-motivated violence, and easy access to deadly weapons has compounded this threat,” Stacy said. “The volatile combination of animosity towards the LGBTQ community and easy access to deadly weapons exacerbates the climate of fear and the dangers faced by LGBTQ people. Reasonable gun violence prevention measures are part of the solution to bias-motivated violence, and it’s critical that Congress pass commonsense legislation.”

HRC lobbies for Democrats’ gun safety proposals

Prior to the vote, the Human Rights Campaign, which last week approved a resolution adopting support for gun safety measures as part of its agenda, sent out a letter to U.S. senators drawing on the Orlando shooting to call for support for the Feinstein and Murphy amendments and rejection of the Cornyn and Grassley measures.

“Though details continue to emerge, and exact motives may never be known, it is clear that the murderer intentionally chose to target LGBTQ people buoyed by a culture of intolerance and hate,” the letter says. “The horror faced by the LGBTQ communities in the wake of the Orlando massacre may be unique but the killings were not an isolated incident.”

The letter, signed by Stacy, says the Feinstein and Murphy amendment “strike the balance” Americans seek in gun ownership and gun safety. In contrast, the Cornyn and Grassley measure “fail to take seriously the alarming toll from gun violence,” the letter says.

“America has gone too long without common sense gun laws and the number of people lost to violent gun crime grows daily,” the letter says. “The volatile combination of animosity towards the LGBTQ community and easy access to assault-style weapons exacerbates the climate of fear and the dangers faced by LGBTQ people. Reasonable gun violence prevention measures are part of the solution to bias-motivated violence.”

Laura Maloney, a Murphy spokesperson, said the Human Rights Campaign informed her boss’ office the organization reached out to swing offices directly and activated supporters on social media.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) prior to the votes made an urgent plea on the Senate floor to pass legislation that would have meaningful impact in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting.

“We should have done it after San Bernardino, we should have done it after Sandy Hook, we should have done it after Santa Barbara, after Aurora, but we didn’t, so let’s do it now,” Boxer said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who has backed expanded background checks for gun safety legislation, predicted just prior to the votes on the Senate floor the measures would fail, saying lawmakers are “taking past each other” and not proposing realistic solutions.

“Why aren’t we working something that could actually get done?” Toomey said.

The failure of the measures on Monday may not be the last word because at least one compromise is in the works that could see a vote on the Senate week. One such measure may be proposed by Collins, which would restrict gun purchases for a narrow group of suspects, including those on a “no-fly” list or a list of people who require additional screening at airports.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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