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Gun control triggers leadership divide between Rubio, Nelson

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Published:   |   Updated: April 11, 2013 at 09:21 AM
TAMPA -

Florida’s two senators are breaking sharply over a compromise gun control bill announced Wednesday, with Democrat Bill Nelson speaking in favor of it on the Senate floor and Republican Marco Rubio joining senators threatening a filibuster.

Rubio’s stance is drawing flak from some members of his own party, as well as gun control advocates. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization announced it will run ads in Florida criticizing Rubio.

Two senators considered conservatives at the center of the congressional gun control debate — Pat Toomey, R.-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — announced Wednesday they will back legislation to close what is called the gun show loophole, a proposal many think will break the gun control logjam in Congress.

It would require background checks on all commercial gun sales — including those made by retail, online and at gun shows — that don’t now require background checks. Nonprofit, private transactions such as those between family members wouldn’t be covered.

Making more gun purchases subject to background checks has been one of the main goals of the Obama administration and gun control supporters. Obama said in a written statement he’d prefer stronger language than the compromise but it represents progress.

“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,” he said.

But some gun control advocates say the measure doesn’t go far enough, arguing for laws to cover nearly all sales. Gun rights advocates still oppose it.

“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 National Rifle Association said in a statement on the bill. Obama should focus on anti-gang law enforcement instead, the NRA said.

In the meantime, 13 gun rights advocates in the Senate, including Rubio and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have signed a letter saying they’ll block consideration of any gun control measure.

Proponents would then have to get 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. They believe they can and a vote could come as early as today.

In a comment on the conservative news web site Townhall.com last week, Rubio wrote, “I stand firmly against any attempt to restrict the constitutional rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners,” and that he would “join efforts to filibuster any gun control proposals that seek to restrict the rights of Americans who have never violated the law.”

In late March, he and other senators wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying they would filibuster “any legislation that would infringe on the American people’s constitutional right to bear arms, or on their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance.”

Asked Wednesday whether the threat would apply to the Toomey-Manchin compromise, Rubio’s staff didn’t immediately respond.

Some Republicans oppose a filibuster.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the idea on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, saying, “I don’t understand it. The purpose of the U.S. Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand. … What are we afraid of?”

In remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor Wednesday, Nelson said the Toomey-Manchin proposal amounts to “common sense and moderation.”

“Is there anybody that does not realistically with common sense think that we should do a criminal background check for anyone that is purchasing a gun?” he said. “That’s about as common sense, as moderate a position as you can take given the circumstances that we find ourselves in with people that go in and start slaughtering innocent children.”

Nelson said he has been a hunter and owned guns since childhood, but that he sees no legitimate purpose for military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines — “They’re not for hunting, they’re for killing.”

Mayor Bloomberg, a multi-millionaire, has strongly advocated tighter national gun controls, saying guns sold legally in other states are used illegally in New York.

He says his Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization has nearly 1,000 member-mayors nationwide and 40 in Florida, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer — but not Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn or St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

Buckhorn said he normally doesn’t join such national associations “because I have no control over the agenda or the issues,” but said he has worked to control gun violence, including coordinating state efforts to close the gun show loophole in state law.

A spokesman said the anti-Rubio ads by Mayors Against Illegal Guns started running Wednesday on Tampa and Orlando stations, but couldn’t say how much time was bought or how much money spent.

The ad accuses Rubio of pandering to conservatives because of his presidential ambitions, at the expense of public safety:

“Marco Rubio, a new senator, but already looking past Florida, thinking of running for President,” it says. “And that has Rubio running to the right, opposing a bill on comprehensive background checks.”


Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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