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Senate Hearing Shows Support for Gun Background Checks, Trafficking Measures

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Giffords testifies on gun violence as her husband looks on during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The former congresswoman was severely wounded during a mass shooting at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.

A combative and crowded Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence Wednesday exposed the deep divisions among lawmakers and advocates over the nation’s firearms policies. But the three-hour session also showed there is bipartisan support for strengthening the background check system for gun purchases and cracking down on gun traffickers.

Those policy proposals, in particular, seemed to find middle ground between the two parties, even as the committee’s more liberal Democrats pushed for tougher restrictions, such as a renewed assault weapons ban, and conservative Republicans laid into the Obama administration for not doing enough to enforce gun laws that are already on the books.

The high-profile hearing — the first called by Congress in response to the fatal shooting of 20 first graders and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school on Dec. 14 — began with a surprise appearance by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. In slow and halting words, the former lawmaker, who was critically wounded when a gunman shot her in the head and killed six others at a constituent event in 2011, called for lawmakers to “be courageous” and take prompt legislative action in response to the Connecticut attack.

The hearing also saw several public outbursts in response to witnesses’ testimony and featured vocal opposition to new gun control measures from Wayne LaPierre, the outspoken executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, who said that more laws would lead to a “huge, massive bureaucracy” of regulations.

Amid the pitched back-and-forth, however, Democrats and Republicans signaled they could be open to targeted legislative proposals that do not specifically restrict guns and ammunition but attempt to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

“I want to find out how we can stop what is happening,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., concluded at the end of the hearing. “I believe there should be some areas of agreement, and I hope the committee can get together to mark up legislation next month — this month is virtually over — and then take it to the floor.”

Background Checks Emphasized

Under current law, federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks on prospective buyers to ensure they are not among a banned category of purchasers, including felons, fugitives and the mentally ill. Sales between private individuals, including those at gun shows, are not subject to such screenings, however, and an estimated 40 percent of gun sales do not involve background checks.

Leahy said he saw no reason that background checks should not be expanded to cover all gun sales.

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