AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Clark Aposhian, President of Utah Shooting Sport Council, demonstrates with a plastic gun during concealed-weapons training for 200 Utah teachers Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in West Valley City, Utah. The Utah Shooting Sports Council offered six hours of training in handling concealed weapons in the latest effort to arm teachers to confront school assailants. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) The Associated Press
Narrowly beating a midnight deadline, Congress voted Monday to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms that can evade airport detection machines. But Republicans blocked an effort to toughen the restrictions — the latest defeat for gun-control forces in the year since the grade school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
By voice vote, the Senate gave final congressional approval to a 10-year extension of the prohibition against guns that can slip past metal detectors and X-ray machines. The House voted last week for an identical decade-long renewal of the ban, and the measure now goes to U.S. President Barack Obama for his signature.
Obama, traveling to Africa for ceremonies honouring the late South African president Nelson Mandela, was expected to sign the bill before midnight using an auto pen, a White House official said. The device has been used for the signatures of traveling presidents since the administration of president George W. Bush.
Republican senators rejected an effort by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer to strengthen the ban by requiring that such weapons contain undetachable metal parts. Some plastic guns meet the letter of the current law with a metal piece that can be removed, making them a threat to be slipped past security screeners at schools, airports and elsewhere.
"Who in God's name wants to let plastic guns pass through metal detectors at airports or stadiums?" Schumer said in an interview Monday.
The National Rifle Association, which has been instrumental in blocking gun restrictions, expressed no opposition to renewing the law. But the gun lobby said it would fight any expanded requirements, including Schumer's, "that would infringe on our Second Amendment rights" to bear arms.
Underscoring the issue's political sensitivity, both of Monday's votes were by voice only, meaning no individual senators' votes were recorded. For a handful of Democratic senators seeking re-election next year in GOP-leaning states, the day's votes could have been difficult.
The rejection of stricter curbs highlighted the repeated setbacks for gun-control advocates in Congress since last Dec. 14. On that day, a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.
Despite that — and other recent mass shootings, including at the Washington Navy Yard just blocks from the Capitol — supporters of expanded gun control are nearing the end of a year in which they have been unable to push any new firearms restrictions through Congress.
"We're several decades behind the NRA," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. "This is a long game, and it's going to take us some time to build up the resources necessary to compete."
Congressional Republicans have resisted tightening the restrictions against undetectable guns, but those lawmakers — as well as the NRA — have not opposed renewing the current prohibition. The House approved a 10-year extension last week.
Plastic guns were in their infancy when President Ronald Reagan and Congress first enacted the ban against undetectable firearms, and when it was renewed in 1998 and 2003. But such weapons have become a growing threat and can now be produced by 3-D printers, which are becoming better and more affordable.
Senator Charles Grassley, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says that with the law's expiration at hand, Congress should extend it for a decade and study Schumer's more restrictive plan later.
Supporters of tightening the rules say the 10-year renewal helps the gun lobby because it reduces Democrats' ability to revisit the issue.
The Sandy Hook killings prompted Obama and Democrats to make gun control a top domestic priority this year — but to no avail in Congress.