WASHINGTON -- A cornerstone of President Barack Obama's drive to check gun violence is gathering bipartisan steam as four senators, including two of the National Rifle Association's congressional champions, privately seek compromise on requiring far more firearms purchasers to undergo background checks.
The talks are being held even as Mr. Obama's call to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, the two other major pillars of his plan, are hitting rough waters on Capitol Hill. An agreement among the four senators to expand background checks would add significant impetus to that high-profile proposal by getting the endorsement of a group that ranges from one of the Senate's most liberal Democrats to one of its most conservative Republicans.
"We'll get something, I hope. I'm praying for it," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the participants. A moderate Democrat, Mr. Manchin is an NRA member who aired a 2010 campaign ad in which he literally shot a hole through Democratic environmental legislation that he pledged to oppose.
Also involved are Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., another NRA member with a strong conservative record but occasional maverick impulses; New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader and a liberal; and moderate Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Background checks are required only for sales by the 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, but not for private purchases such as those at gun shows, online or in person. There are few indisputable, up-to-date statistics on how many guns change hands without background checks, but a respected study using 1990s data estimated that 30 percent to 40 percent of gun transactions fit that category.
The senators' talks have included discussions about how to encourage states to make more mental health data available to the federal system for checking gun buyers' records, according to people who spoke anonymously, because they were not authorized to describe the private negotiations. They are also considering potential exemptions to expanded background check requirements, including transactions involving relatives or people with licenses to carry concealed weapons.
Congress has been focusing on guns since the December massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wants his panel to approve gun-control legislation in the next few weeks and has voiced strong support for universal background checks for firearms purchases. While an expansion of background checks is expected to be a key part of any gun-control bill Mr. Leahy produces, a version of that provision with bipartisan support could give the entire package a boost.
According to Justice Department estimates, the federal and state governments ran 108 million background checks of firearms sales between 1994, when the requirement became law, and 2009. Of those, 1.9 million -- almost 2 percent -- were denied, usually because would-be purchasers had criminal records.
People legally judged to be "mentally defective" are among those blocked by federal law from firearms purchases. States are supposed to make mental health records available to the federal background check system, and get more generous Justice Department grants if they do, but many provide little or no data because of privacy concerns or antiquated record-keeping systems.