Democrats ramped up their push Thursday for more firearms restrictions even as alarm over recent mass shootings, including one linked to Islamic terrorism, fueled calls for citizens to play a greater role in their own protection.
The Senate defeated two gun control amendments, one that would have expanded background checks for guns purchased online and at gun shows, and another that would have prohibited suspected terrorists from buying firearms.
It’s unclear whether either measure would have prevented Wednesday’s deadly San Bernardino shooting, given that California law already requires universal background checks and the two perpetrators were apparently on no terrorism lists.
While Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, decried Republicans for being “complicit” in recent mass shootings, several law enforcement authorities said Thursday that there is a case to be made that licensed gun owners may act as deterrents to mass shooters.
“I think after Paris, and as we learn more about this event [in San Bernardino] we need to be nimble enough and pragmatic enough to recognize that there’s definitely a small number of documented mass-casualty shootings that have been ended by off-duty law enforcement and civilians,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
A former police officer, Mr. O’Donnell said about half of mass shootings are finished before the first officer arrives, given that “these are people that are coming in to kill.”
“They’re coming in to kill as many people as they can, as quickly as they can, so the old model — the police would get there, they would cordon the place off, you could talk people through — a large number of these events are going to be over before the cops get there,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
Ulster County Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum encouraged residents of his New York jurisdiction Thursday to carry their firearms if licensed.
“In light of recent events that have occurred in the United States and around the world, I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO,” Sheriff Van Blarcum wrote in a Facebook post.
The sheriff, whose county is about two hours north of New York City, also reminded retired and active-duty police officers to “please carry a weapon whenever you leave your house.”
He issued the reminder hours after two gun-wielding assailants stormed a San Bernardino regional government office, killing 14 people and wounding 21, in an attack that has been linked to Islamic terrorism.
“We are the thin blue line that is entrusted in keeping this country safe, and we must be prepared to act at any given moment,” said Sheriff Van Blarcum.
A day before the San Bernardino attack, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said legally armed citizens can discourage terrorists. He told the local CBS-TV affiliate, “If you’re a terrorist, or a carjacker, you want an unarmed citizenry.”
Democrats, led by President Obama and presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, have sounded the cry for Congress to pass additional restrictions on firearms in the wake of two mass shootings in the past week.
“No matter what motivation these shooters had, we can say one thing for certain — they shouldn’t have been able to do this,” Mrs. Clinton said in a Thursday post on Twitter.
The Senate voted 45-54 to reject an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, that would bar people on the terrorist watch list from acquiring firearms or explosives if they are likely to use them to commit violence.
Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican locked in a tough re-election fight, bucked his party and voted for the measure, which would have needed 60 votes to succeed. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was the only Democrat to vote against it.
Opponents of the proposal raised concerns about the risk of law-abiding citizens winding up on the list mistakenly or for political activism. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, offered an alternative that would have given federal authorities 72 hours to step in and offer probable cause to deny a gun sale to someone on the watch list.
If the authorities fail to act, Mr. Cornyn said, it would be unfair to let the federal government swoop in and deny someone their constitutional right to bear arms.
Though it would not become law — Mr. Obama is poised to veto the underlying bill — Democrats wanted to put senators on record in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting and last week’s attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, which left three dead and nine injured.
Mr. O’Donnell is hardly an National Rifle Association guy — he believes there are “too many guns available to the wrong people” — but argued that “we have to take off our partisan political blinders and recognize that there could be situations where law enforcement, off duty, and gun owners could play a role here.”
“I think that this requires a pragmatic, honest approach, and it should be driven by data and analysis, and not by emotion and the need to win a political debate at this point,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
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