Senate Panel Backs Stiffer Penalties for Gun Trafficking

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved tougher penalties for illegal gun-trafficking in the first congressional vote on gun restrictions since the December shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Still, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said her proposed assault-weapon ban is on a “very hard road.”

The 11-7, almost party-line vote on the trafficking measure today emphasized the hurdles to passing gun legislation even after the Dec. 14 mass killing of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown. The assault-weapon ban has little chance of passing the Senate, and a measure requiring expanded background checks has opposition.

The panel recessed before casting votes on three other bills, including the assault-weapon ban, and may not reconvene until March 12.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the panel, was the only member of his party who voted for the trafficking legislation. He expressed skepticism about the measure that would expand background checks to buyers in most gun purchases.

Criminals will “go around” the background-check system and buy weapons in the black market, Grassley said. “Universal background checks can be enforced only if there is some registration” effort, which many Republicans oppose, he said.

Assault-Weapons Ban

Feinstein, sponsor of the assault-weapon ban, said, “The calls have been coming in as if this is some wild-eyed scheme; it is not.” The California Democrat said polls show support from most Americans, and that the proposal has been endorsed by religious leaders, doctors, mayors and police officials.

“Yet it’s as if we have a minority, unsubstantial piece of legislation,” Feinstein said. “It’s been a very hard road.”

While her bill probably has enough support to pass the Judiciary Committee, Democrats are conceding it’s unlikely to pass the full Senate.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what these bills do,” said Delaware Senator Christopher Coons, a Democrat who supports the measure.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said the best solution to gun violence in the U.S. is to enforce current laws.

“I have a hard time explaining to my constituents back home how passing more laws that will go unenforced makes them any safer,” Cornyn said.

Trafficking Penalties

The trafficking measure would set prison sentences of as much as 20 years for straw purchasers, or those who knowingly buy a weapon for an individual prohibited from owning it.

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona yesterday introduced a bill to expand the scope of mental-health records submitted to the federal background-check database.

Legislation to expand background checks to most private sales of firearms is the main legislative goal of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats in the face of stiff opposition to any limits on weapons hardware.

If a universal background-check measure passes the Democratic-led Senate, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said Feb. 27 he doesn’t plan to take up the issue in his committee.

Many Republicans contend that gun owners will oppose expanded background checks out of concern that it would lead to a national gun registry maintained by the federal government.

Democrats say they hope a strong Senate vote in favor of expanded background checks will push Republican House leaders to advance the bill to the floor for a vote.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.