WASHINGTON – A divided Senate Judiciary Committee approved a Democratic bill Tuesday expanding required federal background checks to nearly all gun purchases, giving President Barack Obama an early victory on curbing gun violence in a fight that still faces difficult odds.
The vote was 10-8, with all Democrats supporting the measure and every Republican opposing it.
As expected, the panel delayed voting on a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines. The committee was expected to approve that measure Thursday. Feinstein was chairing a separate intelligence hearing.
The background check measure would expand the requirement to firearms sales between private individuals, such as those that occur at gun shows. Currently, the checks are required only for sales by federally licensed firearms dealers.
"This isn't going to be a perfect bill. But it will sure reduce crimes," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the bill's sponsor.
Schumer said he hopes he can strike a compromise on the measure with Republicans, which would enhance its chances of passing in the full Senate. The chamber is expected to consider gun legislation next month, and GOP lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for expanding the requirement to private firearms transactions.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said he believes the measure will ultimately lead to a federal registry of gun owners — which is illegal. He also said that requiring additional law-abiding citizens to face background checks would have limited impact on public safety.
"Mass shootings would continue to occur despite universal background checks," Grassley said. "Criminals will continue to steal guns."
The committee also approved a measure by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., providing $40 million a year for school safety programs. The vote was 14-4, with four Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the bill
The background check system is designed to prevent criminals, people with severe mental problems and others from getting guns.
Tuesday's meeting came five days after the panel approved Congress' first gun control measure since December's horrific shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 26 students and educators dead.
The initial bill, brought forward by the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others, establishes long prison terms for illegal gun traffickers and straw purchasers, people who buy a firearm for criminals or others forbidden to buy one.
Schumer's background check bill would exempt only a narrow range of transactions from the checks, such as transactions between immediate family members or weapons loaned temporarily during sporting events.
It would also renew the requirement that states and federal agencies report records on felons, people with major mental health problems, drug abusers and others to the federal background check system — something that many states and agencies do poorly.
Schumer had hoped to win GOP support for his measure, and he spent weeks bargaining with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who carries an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Those talks foundered.
Coburn's backing could have helped Schumer win support from other Republicans and moderate Democrats from states with large numbers of GOP voters — potentially crucial because the background check measure is likely to need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. There are 55 Democrats, including two independents who usually side with them.
To pressure lawmakers, a dozen clergy members from Newtown collected 4,000 signatures of religious leaders from around the country on a letter asking them to support expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban and other restrictions. The letter was published Monday as an ad in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and was addressed to Grassley. The group planned to run the ad elsewhere as well.
The letter said that after gun violence in Newtown and other places, "To refuse to take the steps we know would reduce harm is a violation of religious values so severe that we are compelled to speak out."
The NRA, which opposes the background check expansion, is encouraging its members to contact Congress, association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
Leaders of the GOP-run House have said they will wait to act until the Senate passes legislation.
Democrats say background checks help keep criminals and others from getting weapons, and say keeping records of private sales is the only way to ensure that those checks are actually conducted. Currently, the government must destroy records of checks it conducts within a day, but gun dealers must maintain paper records of the transactions for 20 years.
Republicans oppose recordkeeping as a step toward a federal registry. They also argue that current laws need to be enforced better without imposing record-keeping requirements on additional gun buyers.
Since the federal background check system began in 1998, the government has received more than 118 million gun applications and turned down 2.1 million, or 1.8 percent, according to the Justice Department. The figures are through 2010.
Supporters of stronger curbs say those statistics show the large number of dangerous people denied firearms. They say extending the requirement to more sales would make it even more effective.
Opponents say broadening background checks would encourage more people to seek weapons illegally.
A 2004 survey of state prisoners involved in crimes that included guns showed that around 4 in 10 got their firearms from friends or family and nearly that many got them from unregulated street dealers. Only around 1 in 9 got them from licensed dealers.