WASHINGTON -- Gun legislation is still hanging by a few political threads. But prospects of passing something of substance began to improve, albeit gradually, over the weekend.
The most important of those developments were reports that Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is now a prospective Republican co-sponsor for a bill to expand background checks for firearm purchases. Several gun control advocates said they were cautiously optimistic about the development. Toomey's emergence as a player, after all, was coming in the 11th hour of negotiations. And the timing seemed partially intended to persuade Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the lawmaker at the heart of negotiations, to come to an agreement.
But it was still a step in the direction of legislative productivity after weeks of setbacks. And it wasn't the only positive signal. On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized the Republican senators who have committed themselves to filibustering a background check bill. The Arizona Republican has backed similar legislative initiatives in the past and his spokesman Brian Rogers confirmed to The Huffington Post that he remains a potential yes vote on the final compromise.
"He’s open to considering the legislation, whatever is negotiated on background checks," Rogers said.
But while the weekend provided green shoots of good news for gun control advocates, it also produced several examples of how emotionally-driven the political resistance remains. The Tulsa World published a piece on Sunday from one of the country's largest gun shows, showing people buying up firearms at a frantic pace out of fear that background checks would pave the path for government confiscation of weapons.
Meanwhile, in an effort to publicly demonstrate his gun-rights chops, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) drew applause from constituents at a local event when he pulled off his suit jacket to display an NRA T-shirt underneath.
“You know, the Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting. It’s about safety,” Thompson said, telling the crowd that he carries his concealed carry permit on him at all times. “If someone is coming into my house in the middle of the night to hurt my family, I want as many bullets as possible.”
“I do not want the Obama administration to have anything like a registry of guns,” Thompson added, on the subject of background checks.
The mood among senators was a bit more subdued. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) put out a statement demanding that lawmakers reach an agreement on background checks and decrying the "false rallying cry over gun rights that are not threatened in any way, shape or form" by the bills under consideration.
Still, anything that makes it through the Senate will have to also find its way through the House of Representatives. To clear that latter hurdle, Democrats had been banking on the bill getting substantial Republican support in the upper chamber –- the idea that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would have to give it a vote if a good chunk of his own party backed it in the Senate.
Finding the right legislative language to get a background-check bill that type of support, however, has proved nearly impossible, though backers of the bill will get a boost as relatives of Sandy Hook victims descend on the Hill this week to lobby lawmakers.
Sources close to negotiations say that the main sticking point now rests on how to conduct background checks as opposed to who would be required to undergo them. Both the White House and members of Congress are comfortable making exemptions for transactions that take place between family members or certain exchanges between hunters.
The disagreement is over whether the remaining background checks can be done through an online portal or whether they should be done through the Federal Firearms Licenser. Coburn has argued for the former, insisting that it would be too burdensome on rural gun owners to force them to use FFLs. Senate Democrats have warned that the use of portals would precipitate the end of the FFL system and could make it tougher for law enforcement officials to trace back illegal sales after their occurrence.
With Reporting By Chelsea Kiene and Michael McAuliff