Gun curbs a divide in Senate

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WASHINGTON -- The toll of gun violence and the widespread disgust it has generated make it time for new federal gun curbs that balance public safety with gun rights, Democrats said Tuesday at the Senate's latest hearing on restricting firearms.

Republicans said today's unenforced gun laws give criminals no reason to fear ignoring them. And they warned that the Constitution's right to bear arms must be protected, even after unspeakable events like the December slaughter of 20 first-graders in Connecticut.

There was little partisan agreement, though Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said cooperation was possible on stopping straw purchases, in which someone legally buys a gun for a criminal or a person barred from owning one.

The crowded hearing room was filled with people from gun control groups and according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., included relatives of some killed in the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing, asked friends and families of gun victims to stand, and dozens rose.

"We know that we have to act," Mr. Durbin said.

At another point, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., began his questioning of the panel's first witness, Timothy Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia and an appointee of President Barack Obama, with one question: "Do you own a gun?" "No," responded Mr. Heaphy, who said, "I do not feel comfortable having a gun in our home" because he has children.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who plans to write gun legislation soon, called for expanded background checks and cracking down on straw purchases, but said nothing about banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines. In a written statement, he suggested that the First Amendment would limit government attempts to reduce violence in popular culture and said the entertainment industry should be "a responsible leader in this area."

In the battle of statistics, Mr. Cruz said that of the six cities with the nation's highest murder rates, five -- Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago -- have tough anti-gun laws. Only Memphis, Tenn., has less vigorous firearms controls, he said.

Responding to Mr. Cruz, Mr. Heaphy, the U.S. attorney, said there are too many factors that influence crime to conclude that strict gun measures don't work.

Mr. Graham said that of 80,000 federal background checks for gun purchases turned down annually by the FBI, barely any result in prosecutions. He said the odds of being prosecuted for lying on a background check are "probably a whole lot less than being struck by lightning or hit by a meteor."

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