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Stage set for Senate gun control debate; background checks are sticking point

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2013

Senate Democrats said Thursday they will take up gun control immediately after a two-week Easter vacation, and said the bill they'll bring to the chamber floor will include universal background checks for all firearms sales and a crackdown on gun trafficking and straw purchases.

The background checks are the biggest sticking point — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he will include a strict measure written by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, rather than wait for a bipartisan compromise to emerge.

Mr. Reid said he is open to substituting that compromise if it's reached in time, but said the Senate bill will expand background checks either way.

"I want to be clear: In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks," he said.

He began the process of bringing the bill to the Senate floor Thursday, even as the chamber was debating its fiscal 2014 budget.

Mr. Reid, who has emerged as the key gatekeeper on guns, said he will make sure there are votes on other proposals such as an assault weapons ban, a limit to sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and changes to mental health laws.

But none of those will be a part of the base bill, making it tougher for them to be a part of the eventual bill that will emerge from the chamber.

Gun control advocates had wanted Mr. Reid to include the magazine and assault weapons bans in the base bill, but he said there weren't enough votes for the weapons ban to pass, and he didn't want to jeopardize the rest of the legislation by tying them all together.

The White House has vowed to rally support for the assault weapons ban, which would limit sales of military-style semiautomatic weapons, and for the magazine ban, which would limit capacity to 10 rounds.

Flanked by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and families of the victims of the December shooting rampage in Connecticut, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said Thursday the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School deserve a vote.

"For all those who say we shouldn't and can't ban assault weapons, for all of those who say the politics is too hard — how can they say that?" Mr. Biden said at a news conference in New York City. "When you take a look at those 20 beautiful babies and what happened to them, and those six teachers and administrators."

It's not likely to be approved, but Mr. Bloomberg said having a vote will be important.

"Everyone's going to have to stand up and say yea or nay, and then the rest of us have to decide just how we feel about people and their stance," said Mr. Bloomberg, a staunch gun control advocate. "We will do everything to win support for it, and I know the White House will be doing everything that they can too."

The base bill will include Mr. Schumer's universal background check legislation, which would require background checks on virtually all gun transactions, with limited exemptions, such as gifts exchanged between family members.

Currently, all sales by licensed firearms dealers must go through background checks, but transactions between private individuals do not. Lawmakers are looking for a way to extend checks to almost all transactions without also creating a record-keeping system that gun rights supporters fear could turn into a gun registry.

That proposal cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 10-8 party-line vote.

Two other measures will also be included: A proposal to expand school safety procedures, which received broad support in committee, and the proposal to crack down on gun trafficking, which passed 11-7 with only one Republican joining Democrats in favor.

David Chipman, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said as long as Congress votes on every proposal, lawmakers have been fair.

"Everyone has been consistent — that each of these are worthy of requiring people, on the record, to vote on them," said Mr. Chipman, who works with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-led by Mr. Bloomberg. "That, to me, has been consistent."

While the assault weapons ban is getting the most attention, Mr. Chipman said universal background checks and banning gun trafficking at the federal level will cut down on gun violence.

"At least for us, I think things are progressing, and we want to make sure votes are taken and Congress adheres to the will of 90 percent of the American people," he said, referring to recent polling numbers on support for universal background checks.

But other lobby groups reacted angrily to Mr. Reid's decision not to put the assault weapons ban in the base bill. Advocacy group UltraViolet called it "shameful and disappointing."

Mr. Reid said he supported having votes on all proposals but said he couldn't get the bill to the floor with a ban included.

The parliamentary realities, though, didn't assuage Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was killed in the Newtown shootings.

"No child deserves to be murdered or brutally slaughtered the way these children were," he said. "And quite honestly, I'm really ashamed to see that Congress doesn't have the guts to stand up and make a change and put a ban on these type of weapons, [add] universal background checks and address the mental health issues that we have in this country."

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