SALT LAKE CITY — Even though they voted against a failed proposal to expand the background checks required for gun purchases, both of Utah's senators said Thursday they're not challenging the existing system of checks in place for the past 20 years.
"No one has suggested getting rid of those. I certainly haven't proposed that," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "There are those who would make the argument that they don't make us safer, but there really isn't a movement underway to get rid of them."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was also not enthusiastic about the system of background checks put in place by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, first with a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.
"I'm not sure I even favor the current one. But it's there and I accept it," Hatch said. "It hasn't worked to deter incidents" like December's deadly elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that spurred the current debate over gun control.
Lee and Hatch joined a mostly Republican group of senators Wednesday to defeat a bipartisan amendment to a gun control bill that would have expanded background checks to those attempting to buy weapons online or at gun shows.
The bill was pulled from the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said he would continue to fight for additional background checks, which are supported by the majority of Americans — including Utahns.
The now-instant background check by the FBI requires gun dealers to screen would-be buyers to determine if they are felons, deemed by a court to be mentally incompetent or otherwise prohibited by law from owning a weapon.
The FBI reported that more than 100 million background checks have been made in the past decade, leading to more than 700,000 denials.
Lee said the total number of denials over the past 20 years may be close to 1.5 million, "but on the other hand, that doesn't tell us how many who shouldn't be buying firearms found ways to get around the existing law."
The state's junior senator said those numbers likely would not have increased as a result of expanded background checks because the defeated amendment "was broad enough to enable those intent on breaking the law to break it quite easily."
At the same time, Lee said the amendment was "too ambiguous, too vague, to enable the law-abiding people in this country to understand with reasonable certainty whether or not they were obeying the law."
Hatch said a section of the amendment that would have subjected private gun sales advertised online to background checks was "way too broad" and "virtually unenforceable."
Both Lee and Hatch said the expanded background checks would have led to a national database of gun owners, even though the compilation of such a database was expressly prohibited by the amendment.
"Nobody who looks at what the federal government does really believes that," Hatch said. "People were afraid that if they got a national registry, liberty would be infringed upon" by law enforcement tapping into the information collected.
Lee said the amendment did contain what he called important language for gun owners, but warned that "today's carve-outs are tomorrow's loopholes" allowing the creation of a national gun registry.
Neither of Utah's senators expect to see gun control legislation succeed in Congress.
"What happened this week does not send a strong signal that Congress is moving in that direction," said Lee, who helped head up a failed effort to stop debate on the gun control bill.
Hatch said he believes the Senate is finished with the issue entirely.
"To be frank about it, I think anybody who changes their vote at this point is going to be in real difficulty," he said.
What had been proposed by President Barack Obama as a broad gun control package, including an assault weapons ban and a limit on magazine capacity, was all but defeated Wednesday by a majority of Republicans and a handful of Democrats.
Lee said the measures would not have prevented criminals from getting guns.
"What we have to remember here is there are a lot of guns in this country," he said. "There are about as many guns in this country as there are people."