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The Last Time Major Gun Control Legislation Was Killed In Congress

A fierce debate and ultimate demise in the House.

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The Senate begins debating new gun control legislation Wednesday, after months of work in Washington in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

J. Scott Applewhite, File / AP

The Senate will begin with a bipartisan amendment sponsored by West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. When it was first announced last week, their proposal to expand background checks for gun buyers was seen as the best bet to get substantial gun control passed. Now, it appears the amendment is on track to be defeated.

In 1999, the U.S. Senate began a similar process in response to another mass shooting.

In the weeks following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, the Senate worked to address the issues of school safety and guns. The result was a juvenile crime bill championed by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch that passed the Senate, but only after a contentious debate on closing the so-called "gun show loophole," and background checks.


Orrin Hatch, who opposes background checks today, proposed an amendment to his bill to close the "gun show loophole."

Hatch did so only after Democrats' attempts to do so were defeated by Republicans. An unexpected public outcry caused the Republicans to make an about-face and introduce a background check bill of their own.

Democrats argued that his amendment actually created a new "gun show loophole."

They said someone with a special license to sell in volume only at gun shows wouldn't be required to conduct background checks. The Clinton White House agreed with the assessment.

But Hatch pushed back, and his amendment barely passed 48-47.

The vote united Republicans who opposed all gun control measures with Democrats who wanted a tougher crackdown.

After his amendment passed, Hatch offered to add clarifying language to say it covered all gun sales, but Democrats rejected it in favor of passing their own, tougher amendment.

Eight current Republican Senators voted for Hatch's background check bill.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

They included Hatch himself, Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, Richard Shelby, John McCain, Susan Collins, Chuck Grassley, and Mike Crapo.

Of these, only Collins and McCain support the current Toomey-Manchin background check proposal.

Gun groups were mixed on the 1999 Republican background check amendment.

The Gun Owners of America (GOA) blasted the amendment saying it "would impose several 2nd Amendment restrictions. It would ban ANY private sale at a gun show that does not first go through a background registration check."

The National Rifle Association, however, seemed open to Hatch's plan, and in testimony before the House of Representatives shortly after the eventual passage of the Senate bill, Wayne LaPierre expressed his willingness to support expanded background checks.

"We think it's reasonable to provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops," LaPierre said.

Then, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced his own amendment, calling Hatch's too weak.

Lautenberg's amendment was similar to Hatch-Craig, but it had differences. For example, Lautenberg's increased the time to conduct a criminal background check from one day to three days.

Lautenberg's amendment would pass on a 51-50 vote, with the tiebreaker provided by Vice President Al Gore. Six Republicans and one Democrat who had initially opposed Lautenberg's plan switched their votes to yea to pass the amendment.

LaPierre called the Senate's vote on Lautenberg's amendment "made-for-television lawmaking," adding that "everyone knows this won't stop the crisis in our schools. The American people want existing gun laws enforced and their Second Amendment freedoms protected."

But after all that, the bill met its demise in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Michelle Mcloughlin / Reuters

When the final bill came to vote in the Senate, it passed overwhelmingly 73-25. Current Republican Senators Grassley, Crapo, and Shelby voted against the final bill while voting for the Hatch-Craig amendment. McCain, who also voted for Hatch-Craig, did not vote on the final bill.

But the bill met its eventual demise after the Republican-controlled House passed their own version of the legislation watering down the gun control provision. Efforts to reconcile both bills failed.

Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Andrew Kaczynski at

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