FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s senators both rejected a bill that would have expanded gun background checks on Wednesday, instead lining up behind a failed substitute that would have focused instead on bolstering the system with more mental health data.
Both Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against the controversial bill, which was billed as a bipartisan compromise. The bill, offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and supported by President Obama, fell by a 54-46 margin, six votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.
Murkowski said in an interview with the News-Miner before the votes that she liked elements of the Machin-Toomey bill, including its focus on mental health issues, but found too many “very clear deficiencies” with it to offer her support.
She said some provisions, such as a requirement that Internet gun purchases be routed through a licensed gun dealer, would discriminate against rural Alaskans.
Other elements of the background check expansion seemed too arbitrary, she said. Purchases made at a gun show would require a check, for example, while a firearm purchased on the sidewalk outside wouldn’t.
“It just didn’t seem to me that we were fixing anything here,” she said.
“In fairness, we were possibly creating additional difficulties.”
In a statement, Begich said he opposed the bill because it would undermine Second Amendment rights.
Murkowski and Begich instead co-sponsored a substitute by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that focused largely on improving the existing background check system without expanding it. The bill also would have boosted funding for mental health research and for federal prosecution of gun crimes.
Begich also supported the substitute bill, touting elements such as cracking down on criminals who illegally obtain guns through a third party.
“I believe enforcing the laws currently on the books must be a key component of any strategy to reduce gun violence,” Begich stated.
The Grassley amendment also couldn’t overcome the 60-vote threshold, falling 52-48.
The amendment would withhold federal Department of Justice funds from states that don’t contribute mental heath records to the background check database. Only 13 states offer that data, and Alaska is among those that don’t.
“I think that’s important,” Murkowski said. “If you’re going to have a nationwide check system, in order for it to work, you’ve got to have your states participating.”
The Grassley amendment also loosens restrictions on the interstate sale and transport of firearms, an element that Murkowski conceded could hurt it among senators seeking tighter gun laws.
Both Murkowski and Begich supported an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to allow reciprocity for concealed-carry permits.
The bill would have allowed concealed weapon permit holders to carry their weapons across state lines without obtaining a permit in the other state. It failed to overcome a filibuster by a 57-43 margin.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.