Agreement ... Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin reached a compromise on background checks. Photo: AFP
WASHINGTON: The US Senate has voted to debate the most ambitious gun safety legislation in more than a decade, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed on background checks for gun sales.
With relatives of the 20 children killed in the Newtown massacre in the visitors' galleries, lawmakers overcame stubborn Republican obstruction and overturned years of Senate refusal to address the nation's gun laws.
Four months ago people thought nothing would ever be done.Senator Richard Blumenthal
The move, which included 16 Republicans voting to proceed, sets up crucial votes next week on amendments to the bill, which also stiffens penalties for gun trafficking and increases school safety.
"The hard work starts now," Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues moments after the 68-31 vote.
Senator Reid repeated a pledge to have an open process, allowing any senator to come forward with amendments to improve the broader bill, but he stressed that he did not want more roadblocks thrown up.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the state hit by last December's massacre, was awed by what he called the "seismic" political shift that has swept the country in the wake of the killings.
"Four months ago people thought nothing would ever be done," Senator Blumenthal said as he stood in the Capitol alongside victims of gun violence and the sister of a young child killed in Newtown.
"Today, we prove that conventional wisdom wrong."
Senator Reid told his colleagues to prepare for a series of tight votes in the week ahead, including on contentious amendments such as a proposed assault weapons ban, which is supported by the White House.
"We're going to have a vote on assault weapons. Some people love it. Some people hate it," Senator Reid said.
But the crucial ingredient in the complex recipe is clearly the compromise on background checks reached by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey.
The deal waters down a broader background check sought by President Barack Obama, which scores of lawmakers opposed.
The compromise would require checks for all gun sales at gun shows and on the internet, although it would still allow sales between relatives and friends to continue without such checks.