Correction/Clarification: (Published April 9, 2013)
An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of a press release containing a quote from Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action. The quote came from an NRA press release. It is not affiliated with law enforcement website PoliceOne.com, but the NRA's release centered around data from a PoliceOne survey.
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama sounded a rallying cry in an impassioned campaign-style speech on gun control Monday night at the University of Hartford, 50 miles from an elementary school where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators in December.
The speech was meant to set the tone for Senate debate that begins in earnest today even as Vice President Joe Biden continues the administration's message at a White House event with law enforcement leaders including acting Pittsburgh Police Chief Regina McDonald.
Eyes in Washington, though, are on Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., two gun-rights advocates seen as their chamber's best chance at forging a bipartisan compromise on gun control measures that could include enhanced background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals and mentally ill people.
One Senate aide said the lines of communication are open, and other lawmakers are involved in similar bipartisan discussions, but there's no concrete deal.
Majority Leader Harry Reid brought gun control legislation to the Senate floor Monday, though actual debate did not begin. He took the step even though he had received a letter from 13 conservative Republican senators including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, saying they would use delaying tactics to try to prevent lawmakers from beginning to consider the measure. Such a move takes 60 votes to overcome, a difficult hurdle in the 100-member chamber.
"They're not just saying they'll vote no on ideas that almost all Americans support. They're saying they won't allow any votes on them at all," Mr. Obama told a Connecticut crowd of 3,100 that included relatives of victims in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. "They're saying your opinion doesn't matter, and that's not right."
He said the proposal deserves a vote and he asked gun control advocates in Connecticut and around the country to pressure their representatives and senators. "Now is the time to get engaged, to get involved," the president said. "Now is the time to make your voice heard from every state house to the corridors of Congress."
He said the Newtown shooting awakened the country to the need to prevent other gun tragedies.
"As a society, we decided that we have to change. We must," he said. "I know many of you in Newtown wondered if the rest of us would live up to the promise we made in those dark days ... or if once the television trucks left, once the candles flickered out, once the teddy bears were carefully gathered up, that the country would somehow move on to other things."
Mr. Obama said it's possible to protect children from gun violence while also protecting Second Amendment rights. He said Connecticut did it last week when its Legislature passed common-sense gun control, and Congress can do the same.
He said it's time to require universal background checks, to crack down on gun trafficking, to ban military-style assault weapons, to limit magazine capacity, to strengthen mental health treatment and to improve school safety.
The Toomey-Manchin talks don't go nearly as far as the president would like. Their discussion includes an expansion on background checks and a provision to withhold judicial assistance grants from states that don't comply with federal gun laws, an aide close to the talks said. Withholding them would affect funding for drug courts, gang task forces, witness protection, crime prevention, drug treatment and more.
The punitive piece seems to be in response to pre-emptive legislation introduced in Pennsylvania and several other states to prohibit enforcement of any new federal gun control measures.
Officials from the National Rifle Association did not directly respond to questions about the Toomeny-Manchin effort, but sent a press release highlighting results of an online survey showing that visitors to the law enforcement website PoliceOne.com overwhelmingly oppose stricter gun control.
"The American people, and particularly the members of law enforcement, want politicians in Washington to stop pursuing a failed political agenda and get to work fixing our broken mental health system, improving school security, and getting criminals off the street," read the release from Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.The NRA has contributed to Mr. Manchin's and Mr. Toomey's political campaigns and gives both "A" ratings for their votes on gun control issues.
After the Newtown shooting, Mr. Manchin said there's no reason why any law-abiding citizen needs access to high-capacity assault weapons.
Support for outlawing high-capacity magazines seems to have dwindled, and gun control activists including Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, aren't confident that such restrictions could pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Still, she is encouraged by the talks between Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin.
"It's a good sign that people from different parties and different perspectives are working together on this and trying to find a way to get a package that can be supported broadly," she said.
At a minimum, any legislation should ensure background checks with few exceptions, such as for transactions between close family members, Ms. Goodman said. There shouldn't be a way to buy a gun without a background check, she said.
That wouldn't have stopped Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, who used his mother's legally purchased guns, but that shouldn't stop Congress from addressing background checks as part of comprehensive overhaul that might also include improved mental health services and requirements to report stolen guns, she said.
"Just because we can't solve the problem of Newtown doesn't mean we can't talk about a broad range of solutions," Ms. Goodman said.
Her group is holding a rally today outside Mr. Toomey's Philadelphia office to encourage the senator to help bring a bill to the floor that includes a requirement for universal background checks. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Gov. Ed Rendell, both Democrats, are expected to attend. Groups opposed to background checks are lobbying hard, too.
Meanwhile, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund is targeting Mr. Toomey, too. The group has been running a television commercial in Pennsylvania to advocate for legislation that strikes a balance between gun rights and restrictions.
"Tell Sen. Toomey, 'Don't protect criminals. Vote to protect gun rights and our families with comprehensive background checks.' Demand action now," the commercial says.
Mr. Toomey is pro-gun but has not been a vocal supporter, preferring to expend his political capital on fiscal matters, where he has been influential.
Mr. Manchin is one of the most conservative Democrats, particularly on gun control issues. An enduring image of him comes from a campaign commercial in which he shot a bullet through a copy of the Affordable Care Act.
Associated Press contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published April 9, 2013 4:00 AM