A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is closing in on an agreement to expand background checks for gun purchases, a test of how far lawmakers may go to address gun violence after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have worked out 90 percent of their differences over a measure that would expand criminal background checks to most private sales of guns, according to two Senate aides who asked for anonymity to discuss the talks.
They remain at odds over whether private sellers must maintain records of sales, which some Republicans oppose and advocates say is necessary to enforce a comprehensive background check law. The imprimatur of Coburn, who represents a solidly pro-gun state, could help the measure advance in both chambers of Congress.
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The Senate group includes Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois.
“They’re close,” said Jim Kessler, a former legislative director to Schumer.
“It’s like climbing the summit of Mount Everest; the oxygen gets pretty thin up there,” said Kessler, now senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic-aligned policy group in Washington.
The Senate group set a goal to introduce legislation this week. Advocates for tighter gun laws say the chances of passage may fade if they delay much longer, as Congress turns to other issues.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to broaden the nation’s background check system and to restrict sales of assault weapons and their high-capacity ammunition-feeding devices.
While many congressional Republicans have ruled out a renewed ban on assault weapons, advocates for stricter laws say there is support for tightening laws to help prevent criminals and individuals deemed violently mentally ill from obtaining firearms. A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 7 found more than 9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks.
In the Republican-controlled House, several Republicans from the Northeast and states that had mass shootings such as Virginia have spoken in favor of stronger background checks. Even so, the National Rifle Association opposes a universal background check system, and it has proven a formidable opponent for almost two decades.
The NRA supports strengthening some aspects of the nation’s background-check system, adding more records of the mentally ill into the National Instant Criminal Background Check federal database on purchasers. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, supports that position.
The state of Colorado has benefited from stricter laws passed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, said Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.
“People say, well, you know, criminals aren’t stupid, they’re not going to go through a background check,” Hickenlooper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday. “Hey, what a surprise. They are stupid, right?”
The state has intercepted more than 1,000 felons with criminal records, most of them violent, he said.
The Senate plan would expand mandatory background checks to most private sales, with exceptions for weapons transfers between family members, the aides said. It includes increased funding for the NICS database and penalties for states that don’t report relevant criminal and mental-health records.
It may also establish a bipartisan panel similar to the 2010 Simpson-Bowles debt commission to examine additional legislative action necessary to address the nation’s culture of violence and access to weapons.
The sticking point is how to keep track of gun purchases to verify that the mandated background checks are actually performed. Some Republicans are concerned that attempts to set up a record-keeping system would be demonized by gun owners who distrust government, torpedoing broader legislation.
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, will advance as early as this week a bill to combat illegal trafficking in firearms and straw purchasing, in which individuals buy a firearm for someone prohibited from owning it.
The bill establishes penalties for anyone who purchases a firearm with the intent to transfer it to someone else. It also would make it a crime to smuggle firearms out of the United States.
The last major gun legislation Congress passed was the 1994 assault-weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004.
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