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NSA: Senators Who Back NSA Spying Oppose Gun Background Checks For Infringing Rights

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WASHINGTON -- Just months after many U.S. senators opposed tougher background checks for gun buyers on the grounds that they would tread on Americans' liberties, many of them are standing behind the far more intrusive intelligence-gathering programs of the National Security Agency.

Senators -- mainly Republicans -- argued during the debate after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre that instituting broader background checks would violate the Second Amendment, infringe on privacy, and be the first step toward taking away people's guns.

Mostly, they bought into the National Rifle Association's claim that the background checks compromise measure introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) would lead to a federal gun registry, although the Manchin-Toomey amendment specifically stated that nothing in its language should be construed to "allow the establishment, directly or indirectly, of a federal firearms registry." It also had prison sentences for anyone who tried.

Nonetheless, Republicans railed against the measure as an example of the heavy hand of the federal government.

"This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends, and family," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who voted against proceeding to debate the issue of gun control.

But on Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican defended the controversial NSA surveillance programs that sweep up data on phone calls and Internet activities, essentially making the case that the efforts are justified and legal.

"What is clear from this information released by the [director of National Intelligence] is that each of these programs is authorized by law, overseen by Congress and the courts and subject to ongoing and rigorous oversight," McConnell said.

"Given the scope of these programs, it's understandable that many would be concerned about issues related to privacy," he added, but concluded that they were "lawful programs created to protect the American people."

Other lawmakers approached by HuffPost argued that there was no comparison between the blocked gun law that aimed to curb the more than 30,000 gun deaths a year and the Patriot Act, which authorizes the NSA spying and aims to curb terrorist threats.

"I think the NSA is about national security, basically about terrorists. You've got a [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] to oversee that. I don't worry about that, because they can listen to me all day -- I'm not doing anything wrong," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

"Gun background checks -- I believe that's the first big step of gun control," Shelby said, arguing that he was "against anything tinkering with" the Bill of Rights.

Asked why Americans should accept infringements on their rights posed by the NSA program but not a minor (and popular) infringement on gun rights, Shelby saw no comparison.

"Minor -- that's the beginning," he said, adding "I don't think that's the same thing. I think you're talking about apples and oranges."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also insisted there was no comparison between stopping terrorists and stopping people who shouldn't have weapons from getting them.

"When a group of people who want to destroy our way of life pick up AK-47s and try to get weapons of mass destruction, that's a different problem than someone who's mentally disturbed and goes into a school," he said, allowing, "both are terrible."

"The only reason [terrorists have] killed thousands of us and not millions is because they can't get the weapons to kill millions of us," Graham said. "And one of the purposes of these programs is to stop them from getting weapons of mass destruction, and they're closer than ever in Syria."

Even Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of just four Republicans who voted for the Manchin-Toomey background checks, didn't think the cases were entirely comparable, although he did see the country embracing such laws after high-profile incidents.

"I don't see that similarity. They're advancing the law bit by bit after major tragedies," he said of background checks. "Obviously with Sept. 11, a mass murder of 3,000 Americans all in one day by one group of people, caused a number of changes as it probably should have, because the federal government is charged with the mission of protecting its citizens from foreign threats, and obviously failed to do so."

Some senators declined to even entertain the idea that it makes little sense to support the erosion of rights to combat terrorism, but to oppose such infringements to stem gun violence.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who voted against expanded background checks but didn't share his colleagues' concerns over a registry, laughed off the comparison to the NSA.

"I haven't even looked at that connection," he told HuffPost. "I just haven't even looked at it, so I couldn't tell you."

Even Manchin, who has hinted at renewing his push to expand background checks, was unwilling to entertain the comparison. "I'm not really concerned about that," he told HuffPost.

Some lawmakers who have positioned themselves further to the right, however, argued that both background checks and the NSA's wide-ranging data operation are improper restrictions of a key right.

"What we see with the background checks is an elaboration of what's been done by NSA," said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). "It makes it easier for NSA. So yes, I'm against background checks, especially the overreach that was in there. I do not support the NSA program. I'm concerned about the violation of privacy."

Enzi also argued that some other government programs should come under greater scrutiny. "But I don't know why we're not worried about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that's gathering all of your financial records, not just your telephone numbers, all of your finacial records," Enzi said. "Think about that."

Ryan Grim contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that there are 30,000 gun homicides per year. It is gun deaths.

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