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Survivors of gun violence and family members who've lost relatives want to change federal gun laws. They want to tighten the system of background checks for gun buyers. Before Congress yesterday, they argued that better background checks could have made a difference last January when a gunman killed six people in Tucson and wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Senate hearing room drew silent when Patricia Maisch began to talk. She wrestled a clip of ammunition away from the gunman on a sunny day in Tucson earlier this year, and she says her life hasn't been the same since.

PATRICIA MAISCH: Changing the past is impossible, no matter how desperately we want to change it. But it would be a pitiful shame if no action were taken to change the future.

JOHNSON: Maisch asked a Senate Judiciary panel to move forward with a bill that would allow the Justice Department to withhold grant money from states that don't share arrest and mental health records that should go into the national criminal background check system. Since that system went online in 1998, more than one million people have been stopped from buying guns.

But a new report issued by supporters of the gun bill says federal agencies still aren't doing enough to comply with existing law, and many states are falling down on the job too. Here's New York Democrat Charles Schumer talking about the current system known as NICS.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: The truth is, we don't even know the full extent of the noncompliance with the NICS law. That's because many states have failed to even give an estimate to the federal authorities on how many relevant records exist.

JOHNSON: John Feinblatt, an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pointed out what he sees as another huge loophole in the current system.

JOHN FEINBLATT: If you buy a gun from a so called occasional seller at a gun show, or online, or in a parking lot of a supermarket, federal law does not require a background check, no matter if you buy one gun, or 20.

JOHNSON: Feinblatt says an estimated 40 percent of guns sold in the U.S. fall under that loophole, which the Senate bill would close. But even supporters of the bill harbor doubts as to whether it will go anywhere on Capitol Hill. Schumer, the bill's sponsor, pointed out the U.S. House is poised to approve a measure that would increase the ability of people to carry concealed weapons.

SCHUMER: It seems perverse that the first gun related measure that this Congress plans to pass since the Tucson shooting, is one that seeks to dismantle states' abilities to protect their own citizens. It's like a bad dream.

JOHNSON: But opponents of Schumer's gun loophole bill say that's the real nightmare. David Kopel teaches law at the University of Denver. He says the background check bill violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process and runs afoul of state's rights too.

DAVID KOPEL: It is a Pandora's box. filled with the dangerous consequences that are the inevitable result of making it a felony for law abiding Americans to possess and use firearms.

JOHNSON: Kopel says the legislation would bar gun ownership based on an arrest, rather than a conviction. And he says, that the provisions related to mental health could apply to police officers ordered to undergo on the job counseling, not just the dangerous mentally ill. He says supporters of the bill may have good intentions, but it just won't work. Patricia Maisch of Tucson wanted to leave Congress with a different message.

MAISCH: How much more pain, how much more sorrow, how many more deaths by guns must we endure before we do something?

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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