Senate advances gun-trafficking bill
Share with others:
WASHINGTON -- In Congress' first gun votes since the Newtown, Conn., rampage, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to toughen federal penalties against illegal firearms purchases, even as senators signaled that a deep partisan divide remained over gun curbs.
The Democratic-led panel voted, 11-7, to impose penalties of as much as 25 years for people who legally buy firearms but give them to someone else for use in a crime, or to people legally barred from acquiring weapons. The panel's top Republican, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, cast the only GOP vote for the measure.
President Barack Obama urged lawmakers to vote on gun curbs, including the bill approved Thursday, which lawmakers named for Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton, who was fatally shot days after performing with her high school band at Mr. Obama's inauguration. Congress should consider those bills "because we need to stop the flow of illegal guns to criminals, and because Hadiya's family and too many other families really do deserve a vote," he said at an Interior Department ceremony.
The parties' differences were underscored when senators debated a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Democrats have noted that such firearms have been used in many recent mass shootings.
"The time has come, America, to step up and ban these weapons," said Ms. Feinstein, a lead sponsor of a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later. She added, "How could I stand by and see this carnage go on?"
The response from Republicans was that banning such weapons was unconstitutional, would take firearms from law-abiding citizens and would have little impact, because only a small percentage of crimes involve assault weapons or magazines carrying many rounds of ammunition. "Are we really going to pass another law that will have zero effect, then pat ourselves on the back for doing something wonderful?" said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
The two other bills would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases and provide around $40 million a year for schools to buy security equipment. The panel was expected to vote on those measures and the assault weapons ban Tuesday.
Thursday's debate made clear that despite recent mass slayings, new gun restrictions face a difficult path in a Congress in which the National Rifle Association and conservative voters have a loud voice. Mr. Obama proposed a broad package of gun curbs in January, including a call for background checks for nearly all gun purchases and an assault weapons ban. Solid opposition from Republicans, and likely resistance from moderate Democrats from GOP-leaning states, seems all but certain to doom the assault weapons ban when gun bills reach the full Senate, probably in April. The fate of the other bills is uncertain.
The Senate measures were all crafted since the December slayings of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That massacre plus others in Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and elsewhere, have made guns a top national topic but have not erased many lawmakers' concerns about protecting gun rights.
Ms. Feinstein's assault weapons prohibition "represents the biggest gun ban proposal in our history," Mr. Grassley said. He argued that bans don't work and said, "Had this bill been law at the time, Sandy Hook still would have happened," because shooter Adam Lanza used a legally owned gun he took from his mother.
Democrats disagreed, arguing that assault weapons firing large numbers of bullets make killers such as Lanza even deadlier. "The plain, simple, blunt fact is that some, if not all, of the beautiful children who perished that day in Newtown, along with the great educators who gave their lives trying to save those children, might well be alive today if this ban had been in effect," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The bill boosting federal penalties for illegal gun purchases, whose chief sponsor is the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was one of the least controversial measures that senators are debating. Studies have shown that large numbers of firearms used in crimes are purchased illegally.
Both parties agree that stiffer penalties are needed to stifle gun trafficking and straw purchases, when someone legally buys a gun to give to a criminal or someone else not allowed to have one. Currently, law enforcement officials prosecute the practice with laws that forbid lying on forms for gun purchases, punishable by only as much as 10 years in prison.
First Published March 8, 2013 12:45 am