WASHINGTON – The Senate rejected an effort Wednesday to expand the use of firearms on some of the nation's most frequently visited federal lands, handing gun control advocates a modest success.
The measure, backed by the National Rifle Association, represented one of two efforts Wednesday by gun rights supporters to take the offensive in Congress. Across the Capitol, a Republican-run House committee voted to make it easier for some veterans with mental difficulties to get firearms.
The rejected Senate proposal would have let people use guns for any legal purpose on lands managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees nearly 12 million acres that abound in lakes, rivers, campsites and hiking trails. Currently, guns on those properties are limited to activities like target-range shooting and hunting, and weapons must be unloaded while being carried to those activities.
Senators voted 56-43 for the proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., but it fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage.
Eleven Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent voted for Coburn's plan, underscoring the party's divisions on the gun issue.
Those voting for Coburn's proposal included all four Democrats who opposed the bipartisan bill expanding required federal background checks to more gun buyers that the Senate rejected three weeks ago.
The background check expansion has been the pillar of President Barack Obama's effort to restrict guns following December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Top Democrats and other supporters hope to win fresh support and stage a new vote on background checks, perhaps next month. Advocates hope that voting for Coburn's proposal might let some senators show voters they support gun rights and give them more leeway to reverse themselves and vote for background checks next time.
Also backing Coburn's proposal were the two chief authors of the defeated background check measure, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a supporter of the Manchin-Toomey plan, was the only Republican to vote against expanding gun use on Corps land.
Coburn said gun rights on Corps land should be the same as in national parks and federal wildlife refuges, where federal law has allowed visitors to carry guns since 2010. He said after the vote that he would keep reintroducing the measure until it passes.
"Fifty-six votes, a majority of the Senate believes we ought to have one sane policy" on gun rights on federal lands, Coburn said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said allowing more guns onto Corps property would increase danger to the dams, flood control systems and other crucial water projects.
"This critical infrastructure is a target for terrorists," she said. Allowing more guns "sets up a national security threat. It endangers people."
Army Corps lands are used for recreation by 370 million people annually, more than visit the property of any other federal agency. About 80 percent of them are within 50 miles of urban areas, making them accessible destinations.
Also Wednesday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted by voice to require a judge or magistrate to declare a veteran is dangerous before the person's name is entered in the background check system's database of people barred from getting firearms.
Currently, the Veterans Affairs Department sends the system the names of veterans it has declared unable to manage their financial affairs — 127,000 names since 1998.
Supporters of the measure said veterans who can't handle their money aren't necessarily dangerous.
"It's arbitrary. It's inconsistent and it's unreasonable," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the committee, said of the current process.
The Veterans department opposes the measure, saying veterans in the database already have the ability to appeal.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.