WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats who vowed a crackdown on guns after the horrific Newtown, Conn., school shooting are touting prospects for Senate passage of expanded federal background checks, even as they acknowledge there isn’t enough support to restore a ban on assault-style weapons.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said March 21 that a measure likely to be debated in his chamber next month will include tougher laws and stiffer sentences for gun trafficking and increased school safety grants but not an assault rifle ban.
Closing background check loopholes will be the core of the legislation, just as it was the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s proposals for stemming gun violence following the December slayings of 20 first-graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
The background check system is aimed at preventing criminals and others from acquiring firearms. It currently applies only to sales by federally licensed gun dealers, not private transactions at gun shows or online.
Including expanded checks in the proposed gun legislation signals that Democrats feel they can win bipartisan support for the measure or are happy to dare Republicans to reject the entire gun-control package and face political consequences in next year’s elections.
Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped a trio of senators would craft a bipartisan background check compromise. If not, he said, senators would consider a stricter version that allows fewer exemptions approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.
In a hint of possible movement, one option that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, and moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are considering would require background checks and record-keeping for private sales at gun shows and commercial sales online. It would exclude in-person, noncommercial transactions between people who know each other.
The idea was described by two lobbyists and Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Other exclusions could include gun transactions between relatives and acquisitions by people with state-issued concealed carry permits and there would be an online background check system for people in remote areas.
Veterans officially determined to have some psychological problems would be given a way to appeal that decision, which would otherwise bar them from getting firearms.
Schumer has insisted on record-keeping for all private gun sales, saying the files are needed to keep the system effective. That led to stalemated talks with conservative leader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who says the data would lead to federal records on gun owners.
The proposed assault ban was the most controversial firearms restriction that President Barack Obama and other Democrats have pressed for since an assault-type weapon was used in the Newtown school shootings. Rejection by Congress would be a major victory for the National Rifle Association and its supporters and a setback for Obama and that provision’s sponsor, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Reid concluded that including the prohibition in the gun bill would jeopardize the chances for passage of any firearms legislation at all, taking away votes that would be needed to overcome Republican attempts to block the Senate from even taking up the issue.
“That’s the problem with this place,” Feinstein said. “The gun lobby is inordinately powerful.” She was an author of the 1994 assault weapons ban that Congress failed to renew after a decade.
Her provision would ban semi-automatic weapons – guns that fire one round and automatically reload – that can take a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature such as a pistol grip. It would specifically prohibit 157 weapons.
It also would ban ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds – another factor in some of the nation’s recent mass killings.
It would exempt any weapons that were legally owned whenever the bill was enacted. Also exempted would be 2,258 rifles and shotguns that are frequently used by hunters.
Feinstein’s proposal will still get a vote as an amendment to the gun legislation that Democrats debate. But she is all but certain to need 60 votes from the 100-member Senate to prevail and she faces solid Republican opposition, as well as likely defections from some Democrats.
Reid said that besides the assault weapons ban, he will allow votes on amendments including those related to high-capacity ammunition magazines and mental health. Many states poorly report mental health records to the federal background check system.
Reid told reporters that “using the most optimistic numbers” there were less than 40 votes for Feinstein’s ban. That is far less than the 60 votes needed to move contested legislation in the chamber, which has 53 Democrats plus two independents who usually back them.
Still, the White House is pushing for an assault weapons ban, Vice President Joe Biden said.
“Attitudes are changing,” Biden said in an interview with NPR News. “The president and I are going to continue to push and we haven’t given up on it.”
Biden and Obama have walked a fine line on the proposed assault weapons ban, widely considered the most politically challenging element of the gun-control proposals the administration is pushing.
While fully embracing the ban as a matter of policy, the administration has avoided describing it as a must-have, wary of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Instead, they’ve argued that at the very least the ban deserves a vote, even if political considerations ultimately place its passage out of reach.