March 12, 2013

U.S. Senate panel ready to OK gun background checks

Alan Fram / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Democrats are ready to muscle expanded background checks and other gun curbs through a Senate committee, giving President Barack Obama an initial if temporary victory on one of his top priorities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was to debate a bill Tuesday that would broaden the requirement for federal background checks to nearly all firearms purchasers. It was also considering a ban on assault weapons and an increase in federal aid for school security, though senators may not consider the assault weapons measure until later in the week.

Requiring background checks for private gun transactions between individuals — they're currently mandatory only for sales by licensed dealers — is a centerpiece of Obama's proposal to reduce firearms violence. The system is designed to prevent criminals, people with severe mental problems and others from getting guns.

Tuesday's meeting comes five days after the panel approved Congress' first gun control measure since December's carnage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 26 students and educators dead. That bill, by the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others, establishes long prison terms for illegal gun traffickers and straw purchasers, people who buy a firearm for criminals or others forbidden to buy one.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to approve all three bills it is debating this week, with full Senate consideration next month.

"The American people need to speak up and be heard," Leahy said Monday of what it will take for gun measures to clear Congress.

The background check bill by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would exempt only a narrow range of transactions from the checks, such as those between immediate family members or weapons loaned temporarily during sporting events. It would also renew the requirement that states and federal agencies report records on felons, people with major mental health problems, drug abusers and others to the federal background check system — something that many states and agencies do poorly.

Schumer had hoped to win GOP support for his measure, and he spent weeks bargaining with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who carries an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Those talks foundered, and the measure the New Yorker is pushing seems sure to meet strong GOP opposition.

Coburn's backing could have helped Schumer win support from other Republicans and moderate Democrats from states with large numbers of GOP voters — potentially crucial because the background check measure is likely to need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. There are 55 Democrats, including two independents who usually side with them.

Schumer still hopes to broaden support by the time the background check measure reaches the full Senate by finding other GOP senators willing to negotiate changes in it.

As senators prepared to consider the measures, a dozen members of the clergy from Newtown collected 4,000 signatures of religious leaders from around the country on a letter asking senators to support expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban and other restrictions. The letter was published Monday as an ad in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and was addressed to Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary panel. The group planned to run the ad elsewhere as well.

The letter said that after gun violence in Newtown and other places, "To refuse to take the steps we know would reduce harm is a violation of religious values so severe that we are compelled to speak out."

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