WASHINGTON -- Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. announced a compromise bill Wednesday that would expand background checks for gun buyers, possibly paving the way for votes this week on a key piece of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence.
They announced the deal as the Senate gets ready for its most intense debate on gun control since 1994.
"I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control. It's just common sense," Toomey said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "If you pass ... you get to buy a gun. It's the people who fail that we don't want having guns."
The deal would expand background checks to purchases made at gun shows and online sales of firearms. It would impose penalties on states that do not add records of felons and the mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The agreement would not require private citizens to keep records of gun sales. It would specifically ban "the federal government from creating a national firearms registry" -- a key sticking point for the pro-gun rights community.
The bill would also create a commission "to study the causes of mass violence in the United States, looking at all aspects of the problem" including guns, school safety, violent video games and mental health.
Background checks are currently required for purchases made through licensed gun dealers.
"We strengthen rights of law-abiding gun owners," Manchin said, explaining that the background checks are designed "to keep people from having guns who shouldn't have them."
Manchin, a red-state Democrat, and Toomey, a blue-state Republican, represent neighboring Appalachian states with strong gun cultures. Manchin said that common ground helped forge a compromise.
But the deal didn't win over the National Rifle Association, which remains opposed to any expansion of background checks. "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," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA. But he did say the private sale exemption in the compromise amendment was a "positive development."
The NRA did support a second agreement, brokered by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to strengthen the penalty for straw purchasers and firearm trafficking.
That came in response to concerns about whether a law aimed at straw buyers -- people who intentionally buy guns for those banned from owning them - would ensnare law-abiding citizens who legally buy guns as gifts or raffle prizes.
"We worked with the NRA and with several other senators to ensure that nothing in our bill infringes on the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners and purchasers, while still providing a strong new set of tools for law enforcement officials," Leahy said in a statement.
The proposed amendments come as the Senate prepares to hold a key procedural vote Thursday to allow a vote on the gun legislation, which has been pushed by President Obama in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.
Obama has been pushing for expanded background checks for gun buyers, as part of a package of new gun legislation aimed at reducing the kinds of gun violence seen in massacres in Newtown on Dec. 14 and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last July.
Other elements of Obama's package - particularly a ban on assault weapons and a limit on high-capacity ammunition clips - passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but are not included in the gun bill heading to the Senate floor. Most Republicans and even some Democrats from red states, such as Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, were opposed to the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the assault weapons ban did not have the votes to pass, but he will allow it to be offered as an amendment.
The procedural vote is aimed at ending a threatened filibuster by more than a dozen Republicans, led by Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. Lee said a filibuster would allow "three more days to assess how the bill would impact the rights of law-abiding citizens."
"This debate is not just about magazine clips and pistol grips," he said on the Senate floor. "It's about the purpose of the Second Amendment." Such far-reaching legislation should be subjected to a 60-vote majority to ensure bipartisan consensus, he said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to comment on the Senate compromise, or whether it would get a vote in the U.S. House.
Boehner has said the House will not take up any gun legislation until the Senate passes a bill. "I want to wait and see what actually passes over in the Senate," Boehner said, when asked about the Manchin-Toomey compromise. "I've made it clear: if the Senate passes a bill, the House will review it."
But among supporters of stricter gun safety laws, the Manchin-Toomey deal was reason for optimism.
With the families of Sandy Hook victims crying in the Senate gallery, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., took the floor this morning to commend their work to lobby Congress on the gun safety legislation.
He called the Manchin-Toomey deal "a promising and profoundly constructive turning point in this process" that makes a vote much more likely.
Gregory Korte and Jackie Kucinich, USA TODAY