DEMOCRATS are ready to push expanded background checks and other gun curbs through a Senate committee, giving President Barack Obama an initial if temporary victory on an issue that has become one of his top priorities since the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was to debate a bill on 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, Connecticut, elementary school that left 20 students and six educators dead. That bill, by the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy 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 on Monday of what it will take for gun measures to clear Congress.
The background check bill by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer 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 Republican support for his measure, and he spent weeks bargaining with conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who carries an A rating from the National Rifle Association, the influential gun rights lobbying group. Those talks foundered, and the measure Schumer is pushing seems sure to meet strong Republican opposition.
Polls show expanded background checks enjoy overwhelming public support. But the NRA has declared its opposition to universal background checks, saying it would not stop criminals or the mentally from getting firearms.
Coburn’s backing could have helped Schumer win support from other Republicans and moderate Democrats from states with large numbers of pro-gun 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 Republican 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.”
The NRA, which opposes the background check expansion, is encouraging its members to contact Congress, association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
Leaders of the Republican-run House of Representativeshave said they will wait to act until the Senate passes legislation. House Republicans have expressed little interest in requiring background checks for private sales.
Democrats say background checks help keep criminals and others from getting weapons, and that keeping records of private sales is the only way to ensure that those checks are actually conducted. Currently, the government must destroy records of checks it conducts within a day, but gun dealers must maintain paper records of the transactions for 20 years.
The NRA and Republicans oppose record keeping as a step toward a federal gun registry, which is barred by law. They also argue that current laws need to be enforced better without imposing record-keeping requirements on additional gun buyers.
Republican senators prepared several amendments for Tuesday’s debate, including one by Grassley imposing a mandatory minimum 1-year sentence for people who lie on paperwork submitted to licensed gun dealers. It was unclear whether Grassley would offer that amendment.
Since the federal background check system began in 1998, the government has received more than 118 million gun applications and turned down 2.1 million, or 1.8 percent, according to the Justice Department. The figures are through 2010.
Supporters of stronger curbs say those statistics show the large number of dangerous people denied firearms. They say extending the requirement to more sales would make it even more effective.
Opponents say broadening background checks would encourage more people to seek weapons illegally.
A 2004 survey of state prisoners involved in crimes that included guns showed that around 4 in 10 got their firearms from friends or family and nearly that many got them from unregulated street dealers. Only around 1 in 9 got them from licensed dealers.