Republicans Block Two Gun Control Measures After San Bernardino Shooting

Mark Kirk speaks to the media after a televised debate in Chicago on October 19, 2010. The Illinois senator was the only Republican who crossed party lines to vote Thursday in favor of a gun control measure that would block individuals on the terror watch list from buying guns in the United States. Frank Polich/Reuters

Senate Republicans overwhelmingly blocked a gun control measure on Thursday that would have prevented individuals on the terror watch list from legally buying guns in the United States.

The vote came a day after 14 people were fatally shot in San Bernardino, California.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sponsored a proposal for preventing known or suspected terrorists from buying firearms at federally licensed dealers. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois was the only Republican to cross party lines to vote in favor of the restriction. Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted with Republicans to reject the measure, which failed in a 45-54 vote.

The Senate also rejected a separate gun control measure that would expand background checks to all gun sales, including at unregulated shows and online. The proposal was introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who, along with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, co-authored similar legislation in 2013, months after 20 first-graders and six educators died in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The new measure failed, 48-50. Only four of the 54 Republicans voted in favor of applying the checks to unregulated sales.

Both amendments were added to an Obamacare repeal package currently being debated in the Senate. Each needed at least 60 votes to pass. The outcome of both shows the ongoing political divide about gun control, with Republicans opposing new gun control measures and Democrats calling for tighter restrictions to curb violence, in the wake of recent mass shootings.

All four GOP senators running for president—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul—voted against the gun control measures.

In the most recent high-profile mass shooting, two suspects killed 14 people and wounded at least 21 others at a holiday party Wednesday at the Inland Regional Center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino. It was the worst mass shooting in the country since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. An FBI investigation is underway, and officials said they aren't ruling out terrorism.

"There is nothing, nothing unconstitutional about keeping a terrorist from buying a gun," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday. Earlier in the day, he promised to force a vote on gun control legislation in the Senate. Individuals on the terror watch list are banned from flying.

"That's what this is all about. Do we want people on a terrorist watch list to go buy a gun? The answer is no," he added.

In response to Feinstein's amendment, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas offered a gun bill that would give the attorney general the ability to impose a 72-hour delay for a person on the terror watch list who wants to buy a gun. It also failed, 55-45.

The measure was written after the 26 people were killed in Newtown. Commonly known as the Manchin-Toomey proposal, it failed in April 2013, 54-46. The bill gained four Republican votes, including one from Kirk, but lost the same amount from Democrats. It is the closest the Senate has come to reaching an agreement on gun control legislation.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which works to expand background checks to all gun sales beyond federally licensed dealers, said that despite the most recent loss in the Senate, the mere fact of a vote on the measures Thursday is a "clear sign that change is in the air."

Speaking at the organization's annual gala last month, Brady Campaign President Dan Gross stressed his belief that the movement has reached a tipping point. Hours before the shooting Wednesday, he sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to expand background checks to all sales of firearms to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing guns.

More than 2.4 million prohibited gun purchases have been blocked since "the Brady Law" took effect in 1994, according to the Brady Campaign. The legislation requires licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on prospective purchasers and to maintain records of the sales. But 40 percent of guns sold in the U.S. are done so without a background check because of the unregulated sales at shows and on the Internet.

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords after she was critically wounded in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, promised to do whatever it takes to inform Americans that their elected leaders "betrayed them" this week.

"Once again, some United States senators ignored the will of the American people, stood with the gun lobby and voted to protect the loopholes that make it too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on guns," the group said in a statement.

After another recent shooting—in October at Umpqua Community College in Oregon—President Barack Obama made an emotional, yet exhausted, plea urging Americans to hold their elected officials responsible for protecting their safety by taking steps to end gun violence.

He echoed his hopes in his response this week to the shooting in San Bernardino.