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Senate should pass mental health bill after gun defeat: Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVA) takes a call outside a party policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVA) takes a call outside a party policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate should proceed with a stand-alone bill to improve mental health treatment to help stem gun violence after key parts of President Barack Obama's gun control agenda were defeated, a key senator involved in the effort said on Thursday.

Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who championed stronger background checks for gun purchases, said revisions to that proposal - and a better sales job - will be needed to give senators space to change their votes without appearing as "flip-floppers."

His proposal with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to extend background checks to Internet sales and gun shows on Wednesday fell six votes short of the 60 needed to advance in the 100-seat Senate.

"How do we get to the 68 to 70 votes we should have gotten? That's what we need to work on," Manchin told a breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.

He did not offer a time frame for offering a new version, adding that the Senate "pretty much is worn out" on the issue.

The Senate also defeated on Wednesday proposals to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

But one area in which there is significant support in both parties is the improvement of mental health treatment in schools and efforts to prevent those judged mentally unfit from purchasing guns.

Manchin said Senate leaders should not wait on a mental health bill while they consider what to do next on background check measures.

"After I talked to the teachers in West Virginia, they need it now. If we can do it now, we should do it," Manchin said. "They don't need to wait until we strategize and put a package together that's more solid, in all honesty."

He said he would concentrate mental health treatment improvements and funding at the elementary school level, where behavioral problems can often be identified early by teachers.

Manchin's proposal attempted to limit new requirements for background checks to commercial transactions at gun shows and online, exempting private sales, but he said there was some confusion and misinformation surrounding that plan that was exploited by the National Rifle Association.

He said the NRA portrayed the background checks as a first step in a long-term effort to enact controls that would eventually lead to the registration and confiscation of guns - something he would never allow as a "gun-loving, Second Amendment defender."

Manchin, who will not have to face voters in his mountainous, pro-gun state for nearly six more years after winning re-election in 2012, said he can take any pressure from the NRA because he "must do what is right."

(Reporting by David Lawder; editing by Jackie Frank)

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