WASHINGTON (AP) - Two pivotal senators announced a bipartisan deal Wednesday on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, an agreement that could build support for President Barack Obama's drive to curb firearms violence.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said their accord would help keep firearms from criminals and the mentally ill. Subjecting more firearms purchases to federal background checks has been the chief goal of Obama and gun control supporters, who promote the system as a way to prevent criminals and other potentially dangerous people from getting the weapons.
The agreement between two of the most conservative members of each party was expected to make it even likelier that the Senate's initial vote today to begin debating gun legislation will succeed, despite an effort by conservatives to block consideration of the measure.
Even so, the ultimate fate of gun legislation remains unclear, clouded by opposition from the National Rifle Association and many Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-run House. Many critics say the effort would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms and burden law-abiding gun owners.
"Truly the events at Newtown changed us all," said Manchin, referring to the Connecticut town where 20 first-graders and six educators were shot down in December, launching the country into renewed debate over gun violence. "Americans on both sides of the debate can and must find common ground."
"I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control," said Toomey. "I think it's just common sense."
In a written statement, the NRA was critical.
"Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools," the statement said. It said policymakers should focus on fixing the country's mental health system and on gang violence."
The White House issued a written statement from Obama, saying he preferred stronger steps but still hailing the deal as progress.
"It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence," the president said.
Currently, the background check system covers sales only by licensed gun dealers. The compromise would apply the system to all commercial sales, such as transactions at gun shows and online.
The sales would have to be channeled through licensed firearms dealers, who would have to keep records of the transactions.
Private transactions that are not for profit, such as those between relatives, would be exempt from background checks.
The changes included eliminating language that would have required states to recognize permits to carry concealed weapons issued by other states and eliminating language that would have limited background checks to sellers who sell at least five guns annually, said the aide.
Some Republicans might vote to begin debate on the legislation but eventually oppose the measure on final passage. Other parts of Obama's gun effort already seem likely to face defeat, including proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The gun legislation Reid wants the Senate to debate would extend the background check requirement to nearly all gun sales. Reid would try to replace that language with the Manchin-Toomey compromise once debate begins, a move that would require a vote.
The overall gun bill also tightens federal laws against illegal gun sales and slightly increases federal aid for school safety.