Prompted by a Democratic filibuster, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote next week on proposals to expand the nation’s background checks for gun purchases, and to bar some people on no-fly lists from purchasing guns.
But the proposals are expected to highlight a sharp divide over what Congress should do, if anything, in the wake of last weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando that killed at least 49 people in a gay nightclub.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says the incident has touched off national demands for action.
“We are, by far, the home of mass slaughter in the world,’’ she said. “I think there is an uprising in this country. People are saying, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ ”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., isn’t saying how he’s going to vote on next week’s proposals. But Blunt contended that some are playing politics with the gun issue.
“Nothing in these proposals would have impacted the tragedy of what happened in Orlando,’’ he said.
“We continue to fail to focus on what the real problem is so many times, because it’s easier to focus on other things,” Blunt said. “Why aren’t we talking about what happened in Orlando and what you could do about self-radicalizing people in the country?”
McCaskill — who took part in the Democratic filibuster — contends that some of her side’s proposals might have made a difference, when it comes to the shooting in Orlando or other mass shootings in recent years. Broader background checks might have blocked some purchases.
In any case, she said Americans are tired, anxious and upset over what appears to be a common threat in almost any public place.
“What has become clear to most of us this year is that the people of America think most of us are not listening,” she said. “There are some very modest, simple and common-sense things that could make a difference.”
In the case of no-fly lists, for example, “If we think someone is too dangerous to get on an airplane, why should they be able to buy a gun?”
And terrorists are well aware of the lack of background checks on online sales and at gun shows, McCaskill said. Their leaders are telling sympathizers, she asserted, that “gun shows are the best place to buy a gun.”
She said she believes that at least 80 percent of Americans support universal background checks and gun-purchase restrictions on some people on terrorism watch lists. “This idea that if you are doing anything, you’re taking away the 2nd Amendment, that’s not true.”
But Blunt says that many people on “watch lists’’ have done nothing wrong, and that care must be taken to protect people’s rights.
“I think we can find the proper balance between people’s rights and our security and we ought to be working to do that,” he said. “And hopefully, we’ll do that next week.”
Blunt proud of pro-gun support
Blunt has come under fire from critics who point to financial support he’s received from pro-gun groups during the almost two decades that he’s been in Congress.
According to opensecrets.org, a nonpartisan site that tracks campaign donations, Blunt has collected $122,000 from gun rights groups during his career. About half of that money has come from the National Rifle Association.
That’s a tiny fraction of the $36 million in campaign contributions that Blunt has received since he first began running for Congress in 1996.
Blunt told reporters Friday that he makes no apologies for his views when it comes to gun rights. “I believe in the 2nd Amendment. I’m pleased to have the support of people who believe in the 2nd Amendment. I represent a lot of these people in Congress.”
His chief Democratic opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, appears to recognize how the gun issue can be a complicated one for politicians.
"We cannot let what happened in Orlando become the new normal in America,” Kander said. “I'm a gun owner who was trained by the Army on how to handle a gun, so I know we must do more to defend our country from acts of terrorism and hate. I would support common-sense legislation to expand criminal background checks and to prohibit suspected terrorists from purchasing guns."
Across the river in Illinois, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin – part of the Senate’s Democratic leadership – said the filibuster was the result of frustration over the Senate’s originally scheduled “moment of silence.”
“By Wednesday, six of us in the Senate said this is not enough,” Durbin said. “…Well, they agreed at the end of our filibuster to give us the vote on Monday. I hope that we win. If we don’t the battle has to continue.”
U.S. House leaders stay out of gun debate
For all the focus on the gun issue in the U.S. Senate, it appears unlikely that the U.S. House will take up any proposals seeking restrictions, regardless of how the Senate votes.
That may explain why few of Missouri’s eight members in the U.S. House have made any public statements about guns since the Orlando shooting.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, is an exception.
At a news conference last week, Clay said, “I’m all for Second Amendment rights. But I don’t think sportsmen need AR-15s or AK-47s or these extra clips (of ammunition) or armor-piercing bullets. None of that’s needed.”
He continued, “When do we become sensible? And when does Congress step up and actually come up with a list that prohibits terrorists or suspected terrorists from getting such easy access to weapons? And bigger than that, when do we as a country prioritize mental health services for people that actually need it?”
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, did respond to a query from St. Public Radio about the gun issue. But in her statement, she avoided comment about the specific proposals before the Senate.
"The FBI already screens the firearms purchases of nearly all of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents on the terrorist watch list,” she said. “Ensuring that Congress gives the FBI the tools it needs to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists while protecting the due process rights of Americans is a fundamental priority as we continue to respond to the tragic Orlando terrorist attack."
St. Louis Public Radio's Camille Phillips contributed information for this article.