Nightly News   |  April 11, 2013

Bipartisan senators agree to rethink gun laws

After hearing emotional testimony from Newtown families who spoke movingly about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voted to begin the process of debating a gun bill.  NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> now to the emotional topic of gun control . just a few days ago, you will recall, a lot of folks in washington thought gun control legislation would not happen this year even after what we saw happen in newtown . tonight, thanks in part to the newtown victims, a big step in the other direction. nbc's kelly o'donnell with us from capitol hill where she's been covering all day. kelly , good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, brian. what we are talking about is a swing from politically undoable to the surprising number of republicans who signed on with democrats to say it's time to start working on the guns issue even though they deeply disagree. how did that happen? many year say the newtown families made the difference. snapshots of fallen children and teachers of newtown inside the senate. outside the capitol, a 23-hour vigil reading gun victims' names.

>> jamie stafford at the age of 31.

>> reporter: crosses to remember them on the national mall , and family members here to witness the vote.

>> we are standing here because her sister and my mom can't be. their voices need to be heard.

>> reporter: under that emotion-filled pressure, expectations shifted.

>> literally the political landscape of america on gun safety is changing before our eyes.

>> the motion is agreed to.

>> reporter: today, senators took one small but significant step opening what will likely be weeks of heated debate over gun laws and violence in our culture. 16 republicans voted to begin that contentious negotiation.

>> it goes way beyond guns. that's why we need to have the debate.

>> reporter: two red state democrats up for re-election next year including alaska's mark begich voted against taking up a guns bill.

>> i vote what's best for alaska. it's not conservative versus liberal.

>> reporter: in today's nbc news wall street journal poll overall 55% of those surveyed want tighter rules on gun sales. down six points since january in the immediate wake of newtown . the biggest divide on guns is along party lines . 82% of democrats favor stricter gun laws while just 27% of republicans do.

>> i am not interested in congress voting on a measure that would have no impact on the horrific violence we have seen in recent months.

>> reporter: after victims families left the senate chamber, some described another set of emotions.

>> the tears we had were tears of joy. remembering this is happening and we are here because this is what happened to us.

>> reporter: we reached out to the national rifle association to get their reaction on today's vote, but got no response. the group has already said it is against any kind of new gun restrictions and will closely watch what the lawmakers do. it gets going early next week with the start on background checks. brian?

>> kelly o'donnell on the hill again tonight. kelly , thanks.