SALT LAKE CITY — Both of Utah's senators voted Wednesday against a key amendment to expand background checks for gun buyers in the closely watched gun control bill sparked by the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting at an elementary school.
The bill was stripped of a bipartisan amendment extending background checks for firearms purchased online and at gun shows. The vote was 54 in favor of the amendment to 46 against, falling six votes short of the 60 needed for adoption of the amendment.
"My hope is that we can now discuss the problems that lead to these violent acts and propose solutions that actually address them," Lee said in a statement explaining his vote. "We can do more to identify and help individuals with mental health issues and enforce existing laws that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement he could not support the amendment.
"We’re talking about affecting an express right in the Constitution, and unfortunately some of the provisions in here are just too broad," Hatch said. "For example, the private party sales based on public listings is way too broad and is virtually unenforceable."
Steve Gunn, a longtime Utah advocate for gun control, said it was "reprehensible" that the amendment won't see the Senate floor.
"I think the vote shows, once again, the enormous power of the gun lobby," said Gunn, a member of the board of directors at the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah. "What it suggests to me is that until most citizens are as concerned about gun control measures as gun rights citizens are, we will continue to be stalemated."
Attempts to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines also failed.
Gunn went toe to toe with prominent Utah gun rights advocates hours after the vote Wednesday in a debate over gun control at the University of Utah in front of a highly divided crowd of students and community members.
Clark Aposhian, the state's top gun lobbyist, and Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, who sponsored the vetoed Constitutional Carry bill in Utah's Legislative Session, joined in arguing that the right to dislike firearms does not trump the right to own them.
"Is he delusional?" whispered Park City resident Liliana Teterberg, following Christensen's opening statement that carrying a firearm ought to be be legal at all times, so long as it is being used appropriately. Teterberg, who lives in Christensen's district, came to hear his arguments.
"I don't think gun control will solve all our problems, but I don't know why we don't at least move in that direction," she said.
Maryann Martindale, executive director for the Alliance of a Better Utah, drew cheers when she called Aposhian's argument absurd that Supreme Court decisions have set precedence for private citizens to own weapons used by military infantryman.
Aposhian drew an equally vocal response from the crowd, arguing that so long as gun owners are acting within the law and are being safe, it's nobody else's business what they own.
A poll taken in January for BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy placed Utah in line with national support for universal background checks. An overwhelming 82 percent responded that they support background checks.
A CBS/New York Times poll shows nationally 92 percent of Americans support universal background checks.
The bill, without new requirements for background checks, is expected to be up for a vote in the Senate on Thursday.