WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday to combat gun trafficking, the first firearms measure since the Newtown, Conn., shooting to move to consideration by the full Senate.
The proposal, steered by committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), defines and imposes strict penalties for so-called straw purchasing, the act of buying a firearm for someone who cannot legally buy one themselves. The bill would also toughen punishment for selling weapons to a prohibited person.
"Law enforcement officials have consistently called for a firearms trafficking statute that can be effective to go after straw purchasers," Leahy said at the opening of the committee's meeting. "What we need to do now is to create better law enforcement tools."
The measure passed by a 11-7 vote; all 10 Democrats on the committee approved the bill, along with Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel.
Grassley's support came after weeks-long negotiations with Democrats. Earlier this week, Leahy introduced a modified version of the bill that blended his original proposal, written with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), with a measure written by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.). Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine also signed on to the measure, lending the bill the most GOP support of the gun control proposals currently being considered by Congress.
Those changes, plus the incorporation of a Grassley-sponsored amendment that would ban the Department of Justice from conducting "gun walking" operations, such as the controversial "Fast and Furious" program, without direct supervision by top Justice officials, secured Grassley's vote.
But other Republicans on the committee withheld their support, stating that what was needed was not additional laws but better enforcement of already-existing statutes.
"My concern is this bill is a solution in search of a problem," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "Straw-purchasing for purposes of directing guns to people who cannot legally obtain them is already a crime. And so we double down and say this time we really mean it, when in fact the real problem in many instances is the lack of prosecution of existing crimes by the Department of Justice."
Cornyn, echoing concerns from gun rights supporters, including the National Rifle Assn., pointed to the tiny number of cases brought against people who knowingly lie on federal forms when buying a firearm. That law is the one now used to prosecute straw purchasers; law enforcement officials have said the charge essentially amounts to a paperwork violation and does not allow them to crack down on such activity.
Other Republicans said the penalties attached to such crimes in the gun trafficking bill are excessive; violators could face up to 15 years imprisonment or up to 25 years if there were reason to believe that the gun would be used in a violent crime. They also raised concerns the bill was overly expansive and could include noncriminal firearms transfers.
The committee is set to consider three other gun-related bills: an assault weapons ban, a measure expanding background check requirements and a school safety bill. Deliberations on the assault weapons ban were halted mid-morning Thursday for a recess; the committee could resume debate later Thursday afternoon or Friday.