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Senate committee OKs bill expanding background checks for gun sales

March 12, 2013|By Melanie Mason
  • Senate Judiciary Committee members Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Senate Judiciary Committee members Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — A bill to expand background check requirements for gun sales cleared its first Senate hurdle Tuesday, even though a compromise measure that would attract sufficient bipartisan support in the full chamber remains elusive.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposal by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) by a 10-8 vote Tuesday, with the backing solely of the Democrats on the committee.

Schumer said the bill, a variation of a broad background checks measure he introduced in 2011,  represented his “ideal approach” to extending background checks to nearly all gun sales; currently, only sales by licensed dealers are subject to checks. Schumer’s proposal faces stiff opposition from Republicans, as well as Democrats from conservative states.  By passing out of the committee, however, the measure serves as a vehicle for a possible compromise that stands a better chance of garnering the 60 votes required to bypass a filibuster and pass the Senate.

“I’m continuing to talk with colleagues across the political spectrum and across the aisle,” said Schumer, adding he was “optimistic” they would be able to roll out an agreement for a vote on the Senate floor.

Public surveys have indicated overwhelming support for universal background checks, once considered among the most likely gun control measures to pass after the Newtown, Conn. shooting. But negotiations in the Senate have proved thorny. Schumer, along with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) hoped to craft a deal in time for Judiciary Committee consideration but talks stalled because of a disagreement between Coburn and Schumer over requirements to keep sales records for private transfers.

A bill backed by Coburn, a conservative Republican with a top National Rifle Assn. rating, would almost certainly sail through the Senate, but Coburn has withheld his support out of concern that requiring records of private transactions could lead to a national registration of firearms.

That concern was echoed Tuesday by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s top Republican, who 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.” 

He added, “when that happens, we will be back here debating whether gun registration is needed.  And when registration fails, then the next step is gun confiscation.”

Schumer pushed back against Grassley’s “slippery slope” argument, noting that sales records have 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 will lead to confiscation or registration,” Schumer said. “Nothing in this bill or nothing in history since the Brady Law was passed that indicates a scintilla of truth to that argument.”

Schumer acknowledged that even in a universal background check system, some criminals would likely find ways to obtain guns. “This isn’t a perfect bill,” he said. “But it’ll sure reduce crimes.”

But he said that new gun laws were often subject to tougher scrutiny than laws dealing with other criminal justice matters.

“You don’t use that on any other law – on terrorism, on robbery, on murder, on money laundering – we never see the argument that we shouldn’t have laws because bad people will get around them anyway. Only on this issue,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, the committee approved a school safety measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) by a 14-4 vote. The committee suspended consideration on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines until Thursday; committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he hoped to complete committee consideration of gun legislation by the end of the week.

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