Senate Committee Passes Bill Meant To Reduce 'Straw Purchases' Of Guns

The first major gun bills in nearly two decades had their first hearing in the Senate on Thursday, including an assault weapons ban and a ban on so-called "straw purchases." Still, even in the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., the legislation faces an uphill battle. Ailsa Chang talks to Melissa Block.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's been nearly three months since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And now, here in Washington, the first gun control bill prompted by those murders is on its way to the Senate floor. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that makes it a federal crime to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from buying one, and the committee has three more bills to consider in the coming days.

Joining us to talk about these developments in gun control legislation is NPR's Ailsa Chang. She was at today's committee session. And Ailsa, after the Newtown shootings, some expected that gun control legislation would move pretty quickly through the Hill. What's happened since then?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, one thing that's been clear since Newtown is that despite the urgency among a lot of people, changing gun laws, if it happens, is going to be really slow and really complicated. Today, for instance, in the Democratically-controlled Senate, the place you might think there'd be the most support for changes, there have been hang-ups like the judiciary committee session.

It's controlled by Democrats. These were bipartisan and Democratic bills, but the Republican senators on the committee were already signaling their unhappiness. And remember, even if all of these bills get past the Senate, they still have to get past the Republican-controlled House.

BLOCK: Now, you mentioned some hang-ups there in the Senate, Ailsa, what kind of hang-ups are you talking about?

CHANG: Well, it's really apparent that here are a lot of members of Congress, including Democrats, who are feeling the weight from constituents and gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association. When you talk to members of Congress about guns, many of them go out of their way to express an empathy with gun culture. They point out they're proud owner of guns.

I talked this week with Senator Joe Manchin, who's a Democrat from West Virginia. He has an A-grade from the NRA and he's been working for a long time with Senator Chuck Schumer from New York on a bill pushing universal background checks. So I was asking him what that bill might look like, but he first wanted to preface his remarks with this.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: We're not talking about doing any - taking anybody's guns away. We're not talking about anything with the Second Amendment, 'cause I come from a gun state and I'm a proud gun owner. We're just strictly talking about should we be able to do a criminal and mental background check when people buy guns.

BLOCK: That's Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Ailsa, talk a bit more about just what the Senate Judiciary Committee approved today.

CHANG: The one bill that made it out of committee explicitly makes it a federal crime to traffic guns or to buy a gun for someone who legally cannot. And it imposes a really harsh prison sentence if you're a so-called straw purchaser. Then the committee moved to the assault weapons ban, which limits the size of gun magazines as well as bans like 157 different assault weapons.

Here's the bill's sponsor, Diane Feinstein from California.

SENATOR DIANE FEINSTEIN: Many states have limits on the number of bullets that can be on a clip. And who's going to respect a hunter with a 30-round clip and an assault weapon going after a deer? I certainly am not one that would.

CHANG: The common view is that this bill is going to have a really uphill battle if and when it gets to the Senate floor. You know, an assault weapons ban did pass in 1994, but a lot has changed since then. It was a Democratic House in '94, now the House is controlled by Republicans. And the common view is, the more time that passes after Newtown, the harder it's going to be for gun control advocates to pass their bills.

BLOCK: And what about another proposal which would call for universal background checks, in other words, closing the gun show loophole?

CHANG: Right. The committee didn't even get to that one today, but basically what that bill would do is require background checks on every gun purchaser, even ones who don't buy from licensed dealers. And here's the rub. Democrats want records of all those gun sales to be kept. Many Republicans don't want to expand record-keeping because the NRA has said that that would essentially lead to a national gun registry, which could one day lead to the confiscation of everyone's guns.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Ailsa Chang, speaking with us from Capitol Hill. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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