Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Law enforcement officials and Republican lawmakers clashed over a proposed assault-weapon ban as it was debated in Congress for the first time since the December shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
The Senate Judiciary Committee today heard from law enforcement officials who spoke in support of restrictions on semi-automatic assault weapons. Also testifying was Neil Heslin, the father of a 6-year-old boy slain at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14.
“I just can’t believe that that could happen,” Heslin told lawmakers while choking back tears. “Those weapons were used in the battlefields of Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their sole purpose is to put a lot of lead on the battlefield quickly.”
It’s “false logic” that a ban on assault weapons would strip Americans of their Second Amendment right to bear arms, said Edward Flynn, chief of the Milwaukee police department. “These weapons are designed for combat” and “to cause lethal wounds to human beings,” not for sporting or self-defense, he said.
“A lot of people make a lot of money selling firearms and ammunition,” Flynn said. “It’s time for Congress to pick a side. This time I hope it’s law enforcement.”
Some Republicans said an assault-weapon ban would be ineffective and would infringe on gun owners’ rights. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, emphasized his opposition to new limits, including an assault-weapon ban.
“There’s much that can be done to enhance safety now that is not being done” under current laws, Grassley said.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said earlier today he opposes an assault-weapon ban and expanding background checks to cover almost all gun purchases. He said he doesn’t expect his panel to take up either issue.
The opposition of Goodlatte and other Republicans to increased background checks signals the difficulty President Barack Obama and advocates in Congress confront in advancing gun restriction measures.
Given the hurdles to an assault weapon ban, Obama and Democrats in Congress have made an expanded background check system a priority following the shooting in Newtown that killed 20 children and six adults.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is seeking to advance legislation in the next two weeks. The measures include steps to curtail gun trafficking, enhancing background checks and placing limits on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The committee may act on those bills as early as tomorrow.
Republicans including Goodlatte and Grassley say Congress should focus on adding more resources to the existing background-check system and passing new laws to prosecute gun traffickers and individuals who knowingly transfer guns to criminals, commonly called straw purchasers.
In one tense exchange during today’s hearing, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, pressed the Milwaukee police chief to cite the number of cases he’s initiated against individuals who failed a background check.
“Clearly your focus is not on prosecuting people who fail background checks,” said Graham, who challenged Flynn to cite an example. “We ought to start enforcing the law that’s on the books.”
“I want to stop 70,000 people from buying guns illegally,” Flynn responded. He said his department has 2,000 gun-related cases a year.
“We’re not in a paper chase. We’re trying to prevent the wrong people from buying guns,” Flynn said. “That’s what a background check does.”
In the Senate, a bipartisan group of four lawmakers is trying to reach agreement in the next week on expanding background checks to most private sales of guns, with an exception for transfers between family members.
The sticking point is how the records of gun sales should be maintained. Advocates for tighter laws say licensed gun dealers should retain a record to allow federal authorities to track firearms found at crime scenes. A number of Republicans, including Goodlatte, say that could lead to a national registry of all gun purchases.
Goodlatte, whose committee oversees consideration of firearms measures, said he is concerned that requiring background checks in all firearms transactions would unduly burden law-abiding gun buyers.
He said while his committee would review whatever the Senate advances, his focus will be on measures to beef up the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System by requiring states to feed more criminal and mental-health records into the database.
“Universal background checks I do not think will be a part of that,” he told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington.
Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat who led a House panel on gun violence, predicted yesterday the House would have to act on a background-check bill if it passed the Senate. A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 7 found more than 9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks for firearms purchases.
“The American people want it,” he told reporters gathered in his office, “and I’m not going to stop talking about it.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, met with Vice President Joe Biden and four senators at the White House to discuss stopping gun violence.
He told reporters that yesterday’s victory by Robin Kelly in a Democratic primary in Illinois to replace former Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. was a “harbinger of things to come.” The mayor’s political committee financially backed Kelly over her opponent, who opposes a ban on assault weapons. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Bloomberg said he was leaving Washington “with a smile on my face” that there is a lot of support for new gun laws. Still, he said, “I’m not under any delusion that this is a slam-dunk or that it is already in the bag.”
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