WASHINGTON -- More than 30 senators voted Thursday to try to prevent the Senate from debating a bill targeting gun violence, even as families of the Newtown, Conn. shooting victims were sitting in the balcony watching them cast their votes.
At least some of those senators -- particularly the moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in the mix -- later scrambled to explain why.
"More than most states, Alaskans are protective of our 2nd Amendment rights and we guard them as we guard our property and loved ones," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement. She was one of few senators to go on offense and tweet about the reasoning behind her vote.
It is "unacceptable" to agree to debate the gun bill before its language has been finalized, Murkowski said. A core piece of the bill would expand background checks on gun buyers; while details of that proposal were unveiled Wednesday, the legislative language is still being drafted.
"Today we voted to proceed to consider a bill unacceptable to Alaskans based solely on the promise that it will be improved upon by proposals that haven’t been fully introduced for public evaluation," she said. "Alaskans and Americans have seen what happens when Congress votes on things so we can find out what’s in them later, and they don’t like it."
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) was one of just two Democrats to join with Republicans in the filibuster effort. He explained his vote as a push to preserve people's Second Amendment rights, though he gave no specifics on how exactly he thought the gun bill would violate anyone's rights. Proponents of the bill reject this claim, saying it would not violate any rights.
"I'll continue to oppose any proposal that undermines the fundamental rights of Alaskans," Begich said in a statement. "I voted today against the so-called cloture motion because I strongly disagree with many of the provisions of the antigun legislation."
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the other Democrat who voted to prevent the gun debate, didn't put out a statement after the vote and his office did not respond to a request for comment.
A number of conservative Senate Republicans had been saying for days that they would vote to block the bill from coming up, so their votes weren't as surprising. Their reasons ranged from wanting to see the language on the background checks provision first, to general vows to protect people's Second Amendment rights, to being opposed to creating laws that they didn't think need to be created.
"I really don't feel like we should be making laws right now when we're not enforcing current laws," Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told reporters Wednesday, noting his intention to vote against allowing debate on the issue.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said in a Wednesday statement, "I intend to use any legislative tools at my disposal to oppose measures curtailing Second Amendment rights and I will oppose efforts to advance related legislation."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) made those same arguments on the Senate floor on Thursday, adding that the bill "remains controversial" and "has little chance, if any, of going anywhere."
There were some surprises on the other end of the vote. Sixteen Republicans voted with Democrats to allow the gun debate to begin, and some were conservatives who have never been -- and don't plan to become -- gun control advocates.
"I have an A+ rating from the NRA and have consistently worked to protect Second Amendment rights," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a statement. "My vote is in accord with the NRA's position. I have never voted for gun control and will not do so."
Still, Wicker said he voted in favor of a gun debate because it will put "the Senate on record about a basic constitutional freedom."
"Bringing this bill to the floor gives us the opportunity to vote on measures to strengthen gun rights, such as an amendment to protect veterans from unfair restrictions when trying to purchase a firearm," he said.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who also has an "A" rating from the NRA, said he voted to allow debate because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to unlimited debate and amendments on the bill. Those conditions mean that lawmakers should welcome debate on an issue, he said, regardless of whether they plan to support a bill in the end.
"That has always been my threshold for voting to allow legislation to be considered," Burr said in a statement. "Given that understanding, the issue can receive a full and open debate, amendments, and an amendment process with multiple opportunities to stop, alter, or kill the legislation."