Monte Frank, left, of Newtown, Conn., gives Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)… (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — A bill to expand background check requirements for gun sales cleared its first Senate hurdle Tuesday, with Democrats hoping that it would be the vehicle for a compromise measure that could pass the full chamber.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the proposal by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) by a 10-8 vote, with support solely from Democrats.
Schumer said the bill, a variation of a measure he introduced in 2011, represented his "ideal approach" to extending background checks to nearly all gun sales. The proposal faces stiff opposition from Republicans, as well as from Democrats from conservative states.
But now that the measure is out of committee, Schumer said, he is optimistic about reaching an agreement. "I'm continuing to talk with colleagues across the political spectrum and across the aisle," he said.
Expanding background checks to include most private sales is a centerpiece of President Obama's push for new gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school mass shooting. Currently, only sales by licensed dealers are subject to checks. Under federal law, felons and others are barred from owning guns.
Universal background checks had been considered the most likely gun control measure to pass Congress, in part because polling has consistently indicated strong public support. In a survey released Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that 83% of adults, including 79% of gun owners, supported stronger background check requirements. Even among National Rifle Assn. members, who generally do not support other proposed gun laws, such as an assault weapons ban, background checks get 74% approval.
But negotiations in the Senate have proved difficult. Schumer, along with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), had tried to craft a deal in time for Judiciary Committee consideration. Coburn, a conservative Republican with a top NRA rating, withheld his support out of concern that records of private transactions could lead to a national registry of firearm ownership.
That concern was echoed Tuesday by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's top Republican. He warned that "mass shootings would continue to occur despite universal background checks. Criminals will continue to steal guns and buy them illegally to circumvent the requirements."
"When that happens," he continued, "we will be back here debating whether gun registration is needed. And when registration fails, then the next step is gun confiscation."
Schumer said that sales records had been maintained by licensed firearms dealers since the Brady Law passed in 1993 without infringing on people's 2nd Amendment rights.
"I would hope and pray we would debate the rational parts of this bill and not say this bill is going to lead to confiscation or registration," Schumer said. "There is nothing in this bill or ... in the history since the Brady Law was passed that indicates a scintilla of truth to that argument."
Schumer acknowledged that even with a universal background check system, some criminals would find ways to obtain guns. "This isn't going to be a perfect bill," he said. "But it'll sure reduce crimes."
Also on Tuesday, the committee approved a school safety proposal from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) by a 14-4 vote. The bill authorizes $40 million annually for a federal grant program that would pay for security measures, such as classroom locks and surveillance cameras.
The committee suspended until Thursday consideration of a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A fourth gun bill, which addresses gun trafficking and so-called straw purchases, was passed by the panel last week.