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Reid Kicks Off Gun Debate With Emotional Swipe at Republicans

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Gun rights supporter John Shagena of Reynoldsville, Pa., speaks to tourists about his opposition to gun control legislation in front of the Senate steps of the Capitol on Monday. The Senate began debate on gun control legislation this week.

A bipartisan group of senators — including Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, as well as Republicans Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — has tried for months to find common ground on the background check plan. But the language currently in the bill, drafted by Schumer and preferred by the White House, has no GOP supporters and could derail the entire legislation unless it is modified.

Schumer’s language would ensure that records are kept of all gun sales, including those between private individuals. Record keeping has been a nonstarter for Coburn and other conservative Republicans, who fear it will lead to a national registry of gun owners.

Reid has said he is open to swapping out the Schumer language with an alternative that stands a better chance of attracting bipartisan support, but no such alternative has emerged.

Manchin and Coburn are developing their own proposals that would stop short of Schumer’s background check proposal, and Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey has emerged as a late addition to the group of negotiators. Toomey, a conservative Republican with a top rating from the National Rifle Association, could be crucial to securing a deal that would be amenable to both sides.

On Monday, President Barack Obama cranked up the pressure on the Senate by traveling to Connecticut to urge lawmakers to find a compromise on the background check plan. Absent such a deal, the White House would have difficulty claiming any significant political or policy victory despite months of trying.

“If you’re an American who wants to do something to prevent more families from knowing the immeasurable anguish that these families know, now is the time to act,” Obama said. “Now is the time to make your voice heard from every statehouse to the corridors of Congress.”

ACLU Concerns

While Democrats have worked hard in recent weeks to dispel fears among Republicans and gun rights groups that the background check plan would lead to a national registry of gun owners, the American Civil Liberties Union now is voicing just that concern. The group’s objection has presented yet another complication for Democrats who are pushing the bill.

Chris Calabrese, the ACLU’s legislative counsel for privacy-related issues, said in an interview with CQ Roll Call that the Schumer background check language, as it is currently written, could present serious privacy concerns because it would allow the government to retain records of private gun sales that are not currently retained for commercial gun sales. Calabrese, echoing an argument of the NRA, characterized the proposal as a slippery slope to a registry.

“Records get created for one purpose, and they’re sitting there and somebody says, ‘Boy, it would be really great to use that for something else,’” Calabrese said. “We’re not saying the Schumer legislation does that, but that’s frequently what happens when you mandate the keeping of records.”

The ACLU also has raised privacy concerns about other aspects of the legislation, including school security proposals that could lead to more surveillance equipment and tip lines to report potentially dangerous students.

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