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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama says that he wants to use whatever power his office holds to try to stop gun violence. But the legislative fate of many of his proposals must go through one man: the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. Senator Patrick Leahy spoke this week about his plans for hearings on gun control, and NPR's Carrie Johnson was there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The 72-year-old Democrat from Vermont has been in the Senate more than half of his life. He's well-known in Washington for his cameo appearances in "Batman" movies. But new White House proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are shining a different kind of spotlight on Patrick Leahy. Leahy's a proud gun owner in Vermont, a state not known for tight gun controls. But at a talk this week at his alma mater, Georgetown University, Leahy brushed back any suggestion he'd drag his feet on the president's plans.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think it is an urgent situation. And that's why the first hearings held by anybody, House or Senate, is going to be by me and my committee.

JOHNSON: Leahy's Judiciary Committee will start hearing from experts on January 30th. He wants to look broadly at the issues, including, he says, mental health care, the exposure of children to violence and gun safety. That means a series of hearings that could extend for weeks, not the lightning-fast approach favored by some big-city mayors who want changes right away. Leahy has voted to allow guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains, but he also supported the 1994 assault weapons ban. Many of the measures on the table now, he says, are a matter of common sense.

LEAHY: About the only gun law we have in Vermont is during deer season. If you have a semiautomatic, you can't have more than six rounds in it. Are we really as a nation saying we're going to be more protective of the deer than we are of our children? I think not.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON: Leahy's Republican counterpart, Senator Charles Grassley, has been in his home state of Iowa this week, where Grassley tells NPR there's a lot of unease about new gun regulations.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: From the town meetings I've had, I can say that there's very much distrust of the Congress and the president on this issue and this fear of taking guns away from people that ought to, under the Constitution, legitimately have those guns.

JOHNSON: Grassley says he's open to having hearings and taking a close look at the issue, but any legislation will have to wait until fiscal deadlines are resolved sometime in March.

GRASSLEY: I think when it deals with the felonies and the mental health issues, I don't think that's a concern of my constituents. But when you talk about depriving people to buy guns that they might want to buy, then they consider that a slippery slope.

JOHNSON: Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who supports gun rights, has raised big questions about whether an assault weapons ban can make it through Congress. To which Leahy says:

LEAHY: But the fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help.

JOHNSON: Leahy told the audience in Georgetown he's come to appreciate the virtue of tenure in the Senate. He's now third in line to the presidency, for instance, and he says he expects to use that clout - and most of the Judiciary Committee's energy this spring - on another legislative priority for the president.

LEAHY: Our nation relies on immigrants. We have to find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change to our immigration laws. And that should include a path to citizenship.

JOHNSON: An overhaul of the immigration system has been considered - and set aside - by Congress before, but many lawmakers say that could be an easier lift this year than the even more divisive issue of new gun regulations. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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