Senate wrangles with range of gun proposals; checking buyers is a sticking point

The range of gun-related legislation likely to pass the full Senate rounded into shape Wednesday, as lengthy bipartisan negotiations over universal background checks broke down and lawmakers offered a separate measure on mental illness just a day ahead of key committee votes.

The bills on the SenateJudiciary Committee’s docket span from a ban on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which has virtually no chance of passing the full Senate, to a bill cracking down on gun trafficking and straw purchasing that has attracted a modicum of bipartisan support in recent days.


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Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has decided to push forward with his own bill to require universal background checks on gun sales after bipartisan talks on a compromise measure broke down. Mr. Schumer had been working with Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, but disagreements reportedly arose over record keeping on certain gun sales.

Mr. Kirk and Mr. Manchin said in a joint statement that they would continue to work with their colleagues on background checks but that they couldn’t support Mr. Schumer’s bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, rolled out a bipartisan bill Wednesday afternoon intended to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. The bill, albeit less ambitious than a universal check measure, had the support of Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas — two red-state Democrats — and the National Rifle Association, a prominent opponent of President Obama’s proposed gun control package.

Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, Sen. Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, (from left) discuss their bill to keep guns from being legally purchased by people with serious mental health problems. (Associated Press)

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Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, Sen. Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, Sen. ... more >

“What you see us doing today is we’re finding a piece of the puzzle that you can get fairly strong bipartisan support on,” Mr. Begich said. “We don’t want to get caught up in all the other issues, but let’s try to move forward and make some difference.”

The search in the Senate for common ground on more ambitious gun control proposals has been difficult. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed ban on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines doesn’t even have the support of the entire Democratic Caucus in the Senate, making its passage a virtual impossibility; Mr. Pryor himself reaffirmed his opposition to the proposal Wednesday.

Nevertheless, a more politically palatable option has emerged. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, secured the support this week of Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, on legislation to crack down on gun trafficking and straw purchasers. It combined a measure that had been introduced by Mr. Kirk and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat, with a similar bill from Mr. Leahy and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. Mr. Graham also signaled that it was something he could support if Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and the Judiciary Commitee’s ranking member, came aboard.


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“I’d be willing to certainly look at what they have,” Mr. Graham said. “If Grassley and Leahy can agree, pretty good chance this may happen.”

Another gun-related bill scheduled for a vote Thursday is one sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, on school safety. Mr. Graham said he would try to get his legislation onto the schedule as well, but wasn’t sure whether it would happen.

Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. urged Judiciary Committee members to act swiftly on the gun control measures being pushed by the Obama administration.

“Particularly since the horrific tragedy in December in Newtown, Connecticut, the urgency of our public safety efforts has really come into sharp focus,” he said, calling on Congress to ban so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require universal background checks and crack down on gun trafficking, among other measures.

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