Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to expand background checks for the purchase of most firearms, getting no Republican support for the legislation that faces an uncertain fate in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
The bill is the second gun-related measure to clear the panel since the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Committee members on March 7 endorsed legislation that would strengthen penalties for gun trafficking.
The panel postponed until March 14 consideration of proposals to ban assault weapons and place limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, both of which will be met with strong opposition from some lawmakers.
The committee today also approved on a bipartisan basis a measure to expand federal grants for school safety.
Lawmakers seeking strengthened gun restrictions have been counting on public outrage after the Newtown shootings, in which 20 children and six school workers were killed, to propel their measures.
President Barack Obama also is supporting the effort, including renewal of the assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004. Supporters, though, are finding that proposal lacks votes in the House and the Senate, and the background-check measure has become the centerpiece of the push.
Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who is author of the background-check bill, defended it shortly before today’s vote.
“It’s sad” Schumer said, directing his remarks to the eight Republican panel members opposing the measure. “Right after Newtown, there was a view that maybe the right place we could all come together on was background checks.”
Gun crimes have greatly declined since enactment of the 1993 Brady Law that created a national background-check system, he said. “All we’re doing is extending the success of the Brady Law to the areas it doesn’t cover,” he said.
The debate on Capitol Hill reflects the influence of the National Rifle Association, a lobby group for gun owners and manufacturers. The NRA, which claims more than 4 million members, has led opposition to any limitations on the ownership of firearms, including expanded background checks.
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said the background-check bill won’t be effective in curbing gun violence because criminals won’t submit to them.
“Criminals do not comply with existing background checks laws,” said Grassley. “We should make sure existing laws are effective and enforced before we start enacting new ones.”
Polls show more than half of Americans support laws restricting access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Feb. 27 to March 4 found that 88 percent of respondents, including 83 percent of Republicans, are in favor of background checks of gun buyers.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement that the 1993 law has stopped more than 2 million criminals, domestic abusers and other prohibited purchasers from buying guns.
Gross added that 40 percent of gun purchases aren’t subject to background checks because of loopholes involving sales at gun shows, over the Internet, through classifieds and at flea markets.
“I feel very confident there will be a background-check bill that has Republican votes and passes both the Senate and House,” said California Representative Mike Thompson, who heads a panel of House Democrats formed to focus on curbing gun violence.
Schumer said Grassley’s argument that background checks shouldn’t be expanded because criminals will circumvent them “makes no sense.”
He said he’s continuing to work with other Republicans, including Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, on a compromise before the full Senate takes up a package of gun legislation, probably early next month.
That sets up a floor confrontation as Democrats work to keep their coalition unified in support of the measure while picking up enough Republicans to reach the 60 Senate votes needed to advance most major legislation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who presides over firearm legislation in that chamber, has said he opposes requiring universal background checks for gun buyers and doesn’t plan to take up the issue.
Many Republicans oppose background checks because they say any new record-keeping requirements would lead to a federal gun registry. Democrats say it’s necessary for licensed gun dealers to keep a record so the law can be enforced and weapons found at crime scenes can be tracked. It is against federal law for the Justice Department to maintain a central record-keeping system.
“Every part of this strategy will be a tough road,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been pressing for more restrictions on gun ownership since the Newtown shootings. “There are degrees. The steepness of the hill will vary, but every one of them is uphill.”
Schumer’s bill would also require states and federal agencies to do a better job of reporting the records on felons, individuals with major mental-health problems, and others to the background-check system.
Clergy Members’ Letter
Before today’s vote, clergy members from Newtown released a letter signed by more than 4,000 U.S. religious leaders asking Congress to pass legislation addressing gun violence, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
“We have witnessed the scourge of gun violence,” the letter said, “and we call on Congress to pass comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation that will help stop the slaughter.”
In recent weeks, supporters have said that banning high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds may be just as hard to advance in the Senate as an assault weapons ban.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat sponsoring the assault-weapons bill, said on March 7 that the measure, including a limit on high-capacity magazines, faces a “hard road” to passage.
The bill would prohibit the sale, manufacture and transfer of more than 150 of the most commonly owned assault weapons. It also outlaws large-capacity magazines and other devices that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and allow shooters to fire numerous rounds in rapid succession without having to stop and reload.
The bill protects more than 2,200 hunting and sporting rifles by specific make and model and any gun operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action. Weapons used by government officials and law enforcement and retired law enforcement officers are exempt.
At least six of the 55 lawmakers in the Senate Democratic caucus have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to an assault weapons ban. That includes senators representing pro-gun states such as Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.