The gun lobby suffered a rare defeat on Capitol Hill as the Senate on Wednesday narrowly rejected a measure to allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms across state lines.
The amendment to a major defense-authorization bill attracted 58 votes - including 20 Democrats - but fell two short of the supermajority needed to defeat a promised filibuster by opponents. Two Republicans, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and George V. Voinovich of Ohio, joined 35 Democrats and two independents in voting to strip the gun provision from the bill.
“This is one of those times when the defeat of legislation is actually a victory,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. “For families who don’t want to have to worry about who might be hiding a gun every time they take their kids to school, go to the supermarket or go to work, this is a big victory in the name of safety.”
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, sponsored the amendment. Among those backing him was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Guns have proved a politically tricky issue for the Democrat-led Congress as leaders in both the House and Senate have tried to avoid votes on the issue for fear they would pass with the help of Democrats from Western and Southern states.
Indeed, Second Amendment advocates led by the National Rifle Association won a victory earlier this session when Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, added to a credit card consumer-protection bill a measure that would allow people to carry guns in some national parks.
Separately, a Senate amendment that would eliminate most of the District of Columbia’s gun laws has all but killed a congressional voting rights bill for the city as leaders in the House would rather table it than risk passage with the gun provision included.
Adding to the political heat in Wednesday’s vote was the fact that the NRA announced it would “score” the vote as a part of its overall measure of how lawmakers vote on critical gun issues.
Mr. Thune and other supporters argued that the concealed-weapon proposal would reduce violence and enable truck drivers and travelers to protect themselves as they crossed state lines.
“Criminals commit crimes; that’s what they do. Criminals kill people. This isn’t directed at criminals - this is directed at law-abiding citizens who want to protect themselves,” Mr. Thune said.
Under the amendment, an individual with a permit to carry a concealed firearm in his state of residence would have been able to take his gun across state lines, but then would have to abide by that state’s gun laws.
Forty-six states have concealed-gun laws under which permits are issued. Illinois and Wisconsin don’t allow any carrying of concealed firearms, while Alaska and Vermont permit doing so without a permit.
In a twist on the traditional partisan divide, Senate Democrats attacked the Thune amendment as a violation of the rights of individual states to regulate guns within their borders.
“I believe it completely undermines the rights of state governments,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “This is not a philosophical debate. It is a matter of life and death.”
Mr. Thune, who recently replaced Sen. John Ensign of Nevada as head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, is regarded as a rising star among Republican lawmakers. His 2004 victory over incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle was the first defeat of a sitting Senate majority or minority leader in more than 50 years.
Mr. Thune’s was not the only controversial amendment proposed to the fiscal 2010 defense-authorization bill. In two other contentious votes, the chamber approved a bolstered hate-crimes measure targeting crimes against gays and stripped out $2 billion in funding for new F-22 Raptor fighter jets that President Obama opposed.