House members on Tuesday rolled out the chamber's first piece of bipartisan gun legislation since December's Connecticut school shootings, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he could envision strengthening federal background checks — two significant developments in a debate that has been left largely to the White House and the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The legislation would make straw purchasing — buying a gun for another person who cannot legally purchase or own one — a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. It would also make gun trafficking a federal offense —something that law enforcement officials have been requesting. Co-sponsors are Republican Reps. E. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, and Democratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.
"As a lifetime member of the [National Rifle Association], as a firearm owner, as a father, and really as a grandfather, I've got a problem with people who break the law using firearms, because it inevitably puts pressure on my rights," Mr. Rigell said.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said the group does not have a position on the bill, but will work with members of Congress as the legislative process goes forward.
House Republican leadership has indicated the chamber will wait to act on any gun legislation until the Democrat-led Senate does. Still, Mr. Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Tuesday he would be open to strengthening federal background checks, akin to what his home state of Virginia did in the wake of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
"I think that we can take a lot of lessons from what Virginia did and put it in place at the federal level, because there are a lot of states that aren't doing what Virginia is doing to try and beef up the database for the background checks to make sure that we actually can do something that does have a chance at reducing the likelihood and hopefully eliminating it from happening again," Mr. Cantor told CNN.
Mr. Cummings, who lost his nephew to gun violence a year and a half ago, said he was "very encouraged" by Mr. Cantor's remarks.
"I think he clearly opened a door for the House to move on meaningful legislation, and I'm hoping all of this sends a bright signal to all of our colleagues that we should not concentrate so much about [what] we're against, but what we're for," Mr. Cummings said.
Meanwhile in the upper chamber, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat, has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, that would make gun trafficking a federal crime.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has pledged to bring legislation on gun violence to the Senate floor for a vote, though he has not provided details on what will end up in a final package.
President Obama said Monday that on bills cracking down on straw purchasing, "there's no reason we can't get that done."
White House press secretary Jay Carney, however, disputed the notion that Mr. Obama might be backing off more politically unpalatable parts of his package, such as bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in favor of a stronger push for measures that have a better chance of passing Congress.
"[T]he package the president put together entirely enjoys his support, and he will push for all of it.," Mr. Carney said. "He has said when asked and in his remarks about this effort that he understands that these are hard things to achieve."
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