Reporting from Washington — The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday rejected a request from Democrats to hold hearings related to gun safety in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson earlier this month.
All 16 Democrats on the committee, which has jurisdiction over firearms laws, sent a letter to Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who recently took charge of the panel, asking him to convene hearings on the use of high-capacity magazines and improving background checks to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining guns.
"It is more important than ever that we examine our gun safety laws and regulations," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee. "It is simply common sense to limit the availability of high-capacity magazines, and ensure that individuals banned by law from owning firearms are, in fact, prevented from buying guns."
But Smith, in a statement released by the committee, said any such hearings could prejudice the upcoming trial of the shooting suspect, Jared Lee Loughner.
In the letter, the Democrats noted that the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 would have banned the magazine Loughner allegedly used to kill six and injure 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, outside a Tucson supermarket Jan. 8. "It has been widely reported that Mr. Loughner used a magazine that allowed him to fire over 30 rounds and that only when he attempted to reload was he able to be subdued," they said. The issue "should be reviewed," the Democrats said.
Democrats also suggested that at least 1.6 million "disqualifying" records of mentally ill people are missing from the national database used by firearms dealers to check the backgrounds of gun buyers. Because Loughner "may have had mental health issues," the letter said, the database's effectiveness should be examined, the Democrats said.
Smith, in his response, said the committee should review the database, known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System "at the appropriate time." But hearings now might affect criminal proceedings in which Loughner's "mental status is likely to be a key issue," he said.
"Jared Loughner has not been found to be mentally ill," Smith said. "It is inappropriate for Congress to hold hearings on NICS that presume otherwise while Loughner is facing trial."
Since the expiration of the assault weapons ban, gun-control efforts on Capitol Hill have been lonely endeavors. Republicans, along with an increasing number of Democrats, have embraced gun rights and resisted most attempts at regulation.
After their colleague, Giffords, was shot, some House Democrats introduced bills that would ban high-capacity magazines and close a loophole in background checks relating to gun shows, but that legislation isn't expected to go forward.
Members of the California delegation who signed the letter included Reps. Howard Berman, Zoe Lofgren, Maxine Waters, Judy Chu, and Linda Sanchez.