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Bipartisan deal on background checks: Biggest gun control win yet?

Two senators announced a bipartisan deal on a gun control bill that would expand background checks. Its passage is hardly assured, but just the compromise is significant.

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The bill would do several things:

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  • Require all prospective firearms purchasers at gun shows or on the Internet to pass a background check. It would not, however, require background checks for private purchases.
  • Provide incentives to states to provide full criminal- and mental-health data to the federal background check database.
  •  Make several small tweaks to existing gun laws long-sought by Second Amendment advocates, such as providing greater protections for gun owners to travel with their weapons and allowing active-duty military members to purchase firearms where they live.
  • Establish a national commission on mass violence, a key priority for Manchin, that will look at the roots of violence from the perspectives of both policy and culture.

“This is a bipartisan movement, it's bipartisan amendment, and we all know that a bipartisan solution is a lasting solution,” said Manchin, who had chased a deal on background checks in talks with Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, among others.

The question now is how many Republicans Toomey can bring to the bill, which will need 60 votes to avoid the threat of another filibuster before the final vote. Not all Republicans who are expected to vote Thursday to allow debate to proceed are considered sure "yes" votes on the actual legislation. Meanwhile, Republican colleagues including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, Toomey's erstwhile allies on fiscal matters, are vowing to halt any gun measure in its tracks.

To Toomey, expanded background checks – which some polls show are supported by 90 percent of Americans – are a way that Congress can respond to the public outcry after Newtown without infringing on the constitutional rights of lawful gun owners.

“I don’t consider criminal background checks gun control. I consider them common sense,” Toomey said Wednesday. “The argument we hear sometimes about background checks leading to the erosion of our Second Amendment rights, that simply hasn’t happened, and we are going to make sure that it doesn’t.”

On one hand, the deal has substantial political risks for Toomey, given his conservative base of support in Pennsylvania.

“It’s surprising, and there certainly is an element of risk to what he’s doing,” says Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican operative in the Keystone State. “Pennsylvania is a very pro-gun state. It’s always thin ice that you’re skating on when you use the Second Amendment issues as a platform on which to launch a compromise.”

That said, Toomey is also showing that his political persona is more nuanced than his reputation suggests. As a former head of the Club for Growth, which turns the screws on insufficiently conservative members of Congress in primary battles, he was seen as a conservative insurgent. But Wednesday's deal shows that he will fight for compromise, too.

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