Senate lawmakers this week are beginning what appears to be their final push to pass gun control legislation in response to the deadly massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December.
On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the “Assault Weapons Ban of 2013,” which she introduced last month. The following day, the Judiciary Committee plans to consider the assault weapons ban, which would also ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as three other bills.
The assault weapons ban is seen as having virtually no chance to get through Congress. The decision by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to nonetheless consider it in committee signals that the Senate is taking a piecemeal approach to passing gun control legislation, rather than trying to pass a comprehensive bill. That's because the assault weapons bill, which has a good chance to clear the committee, would almost certainly drag down the other gun control legislation if it were part of a comprehensive package presented to the full Senate. Feinstein herself acknowledged this week that her bill faced “very tough” prospects on the Senate floor.
The other gun control bills scheduled to be taken up Thursday are a Leahy-backed measure to combat illegal arms trafficking; a bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., focused on school safety; and a bill mandating universal background checks sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Because Judiciary Committee rules allow any senator to ask for a one-week delay, it is likely the markup will be postponed until March 7. (A spokesman for the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that no decision had been made but that “there are some shenanigans going on” because a final version of Schumer's bill has yet to be introduced.) The Judiciary Committee will put together final versions of the bills and vote on them, and the Senate leadership can then decide how to bring them to the Senate floor for consideration.
Schumer has been working with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and two other senators to reach compromise on the background check bill. The parties have reached an impasse over the issue of whether gun sellers should be forced to keep a record of gun sales.
By law, the federal government must destroy evidence of background checks within 24 hours – otherwise, some argue, the government would have a de facto federal gun registry. Schumer thus argues that sellers should be required to maintain a record of the sale.
The idea is that if a gun is used in a crime and is traced to the seller, the seller would be able to produce a record of the transaction. That incentivizes the seller to perform the background check. That's because he would be in trouble if he sold the weapon to someone who the government could show would have failed a background check.
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Jim Kessler of the centrist-Democratic think tank Third Way, who was formerly with Americans for Gun Safety, called the records “critically important.”
“It is very difficult to enforce a universal background check law without being able to ask someone to prove that they did the background check,” he said.
Coburn's office did not return a request for comment, but his argument is that enforcement would come via stings on gun sellers. Many Republicans have tied record-keeping to a national gun registry, which Schumer says he opposes.
“I don't think we're that close to a deal, and there absolutely will not be recordkeeping on legitimate, law-abiding gun owners in this country,” Coburn said on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend. “And if they want to eliminate the benefits of actually trying to prevent the sales to people who are mentally ill and to criminals, all they have to do is create a recordkeeping, and that will kill this bill.”
The other two senators in the group of four seeking a compromise are Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is supported by the National Rifle Association, and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, who, like Schumer, has an “F” rating from the gun lobby group.
The hope is that the coalition will bring enough lawmakers with them to reach the 60 votes necessary to pass a compromise bill. The four have already been reaching out to other senators for input on the legislation, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said this week he is in discussions with the core group. Manchin, meanwhile, presented a rosier image of negotiations than Coburn, saying, “We're working. We'll get there, we'll get there.”
The American people widely support universal background checks, with numerous polls showing that nine in ten back the idea, including the vast majority of NRA members. At the moment, gun dealers are required to perform background checks but not sellers at gun sales or personal sellers. People can fail the check if they have a restraining order against them or have been convicted of a violent crime, among other reasons.
The NRA released an ad Monday accusing Schumer of favoring a gun registry, despite his claims to the contrary. It spotlighted Schumer's comment saying he had been pushing “universal registration” to make the claim. Schumer's spokesman told CBS News that the comment was a misstatement and noted that he had used the correct phrase – universal background checks – elsewhere in the interview. The ad appeared to be an attempt to gin up opposition to a universal background check bill by casting it as a backdoor attempt to create a registry.
Kessler criticized the NRA for the suggestion that Schumer is pursing a national gun registry. He pointed out that records for 170 million guns that have gone through a criminal background check are already sitting in gun stores, and noted that people do not consider those records akin to a federal registry.
“If the Ten Commandments were in the bill, the NRA would say that it had gun registry,” he said.
The big-ticket items with the best chance of passage are the universal background checks bill and the gun trafficking bill, which could gain support from Republicans in the wake of the “fast and furious” incident. A ban on high-capacity magazines looks unlikely but not impossible. Also under discussion are ways to incentivize states to do a better job at making mental health records available.
Democrats will almost certainly need to overcome a filibuster – which requires 60 votes – to pass the bill through the Senate. There are now 55 senators who caucus with Democrats, including some who hail from relatively pro-gun states and may be skittish about backing the measure.
If Coburn and other NRA-backed Republicans decide to vote for a bill, it will increase pressure on the House Republican leadership to bring it to the floor. Even if the bill comes to the floor, it's far from clear that enough Republicans and pro-gun Democrats would be willing to vote for it to get it to the president's desk.
“We are working,” Schumer told CBS News late Tuesday. “Guns are not an easy issue but we are working. That's where we are at.”