WASHINGTON — A Wednesday Senate panel hearing on reducing gun violence focused heavily on the matter of expanded background checks, a major priority for gun control advocates and congressional Democrats pushing for new laws after December’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Among the lawmakers pressing the issue was Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who asked a panel of witnesses to explain how to properly extend federal background checks to gun shows and private sales (where 40 percent of gun sales take place, without an accompanying background check) while preserving Second Amendment rights.
“It’s my understanding that when people buy guns [through federally-licensed dealers], they do undergo a background check,” Klobuchar said. “We know that. We’re just simply trying to close some of these loopholes.”
The hearing was essentially a face-off between high-profile advocates on both sides of the issue. The star witnesses were Mark Kelly, joined briefly by his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, and Wayne LaPierre, the vice president of the National Rifle Association.
LaPierre said the NRA opposes new background-check measures on a fundamental level because criminals who want to get guns will manage to find other ways to do so anyway.
He also said it was impractical to implement new background checks until current federal gun laws are enforced more vigorously. In 2010, only 44 individuals were prosecuted under the background check law, despite the more than 76,000 attempted purchases that were denied when background checks were run, he said in his testimony.
“If you’re talking about expanding that system to every hunter, to every family member, every relative all over the United States when the system already can’t handle what it has,” LaPierre said under questioning from Klobuchar, “you’re creating an enormous federal bureaucracy, and it’s only going to hit the law-abiding people, not criminals. … It’s an unworkable, universal, federal nightmare bureaucracy being imposed under the federal government.”
Franken to introduce mental health bill
Gun control advocates have said background checks should be an easy reform for Congress to take up. Even though some liberal lawmakers have doubted they have enough political muscle to secure more controversial, sweeping gun control reforms, they’ve said the same.
While background checks weren’t the sole focus of today’s hearing, much of the discussion trended that way. Lawmakers also pushed a panel of witnesses — which included a Baltimore police chief advocating for more gun control and a law professor and women’s rights advocate calling for congressional restraint — on everything from an assault weapons ban to the ability of homeowners to protect themselves using either a rifle or a handgun.
Sen. Al Franken noted his support for measures like an assault weapons ban, limiting the capacity of magazines and expanding background checks. He said he’ll introduce a bill Thursday to increase federal funding for school mental health programs.
According to his office, the bill will provide $200 million in federal grants to schools to expand mental heath services and “provide training for families, school staff, and other members of the community to look out for warning signs in children and to refer them for the appropriate services when necessary.”
“I want to be careful here that we don’t stigmatize mental illness,” Franken said. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than the rest of the population. In fact, they’re more likely to be to victims of violence. But these recent events have caused us as a nation to scrutinize our failed mental health system, and I’m glad that we’re talking about this issue in a serious way.”
Kelly and Giffords (who, of course, survived an assassination attempt in 2010) have founded a political organization advocating for tougher gun laws. In addition to background checks, the couple wants more research into the causes of gun violence, a tougher gun trafficking law and a “careful and civil conversation” about an assault weapons ban.
“Violence is a big problem,” Giffords told the committee in a brief statement. “Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”
LaPierre and the NRA are opposed to many of the gun control measures backed by President Obama and leading congressional Democrats. At Wednesday’s hearing, he called for increasing armed guards in schools, a new emphasis on mental health care and increasing enforcement of federal laws currently on the books.
But, “law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals,” he said. “Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.”
President Obama announced a wide-ranging gun control package two weeks ago centering on an assault weapons and high-capacity magazine ban and reforms. Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill to reinstate the assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. For its part, the NRA has asked Congress to consider funding a program putting armed guards in schools to prevent the type of massacre that happened in Newtown.
GOP leadership in the House is waiting to consider gun control legislation until the Democratically controlled Senate takes up the matter. Passing major reforms is considered a long-shot, given the anti-gun control stance of most members of the GOP and many Democrats representing rural areas.
The two lead lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary committee, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), effectively illustrated the battle lines in the gun debate. Leahy said safety from gun violence is a “common cause” and that Americans should be focused on finding a way to stop it. He set the tone for the hearing when he questioned why people might oppose a measure like universal background checks.
“Second Amendment rights are the foundation on which our discussion rests,” he said. “They are not at risk. But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit mass murder.”
Grassley said he doubted the effectiveness of both past gun control measures and those proposed now, including an assault weapon ban and a limitation on magazine capacity. He said the focus should be on mental health issues and violence in the media.
“Any serious discussion of the causes of gun violence must include a complete re-examination of mental health as it relates to mass shootings,” he said. “Society as a whole has changed, too.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, as they have since Newtown, many Democrats said they wanted to enact whatever measures they could to prevent another such shooting.
“I was thinking about all the people in this room that have thought those ‘maybes,’ too,” Klobuchar said. “’Maybe if this had been in place, maybe if that had been in place.’ I think your acknowledgement that it’s not one solution for every person, for every case, that we have to enforce the laws, but we have to do better with background checks and with a number of proposals out there from Vice President Biden’s commission, that we can do better.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry