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Gun control measures enter critical period

A man holds a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

A man holds a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. (Feb. 4, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The next two to three weeks could determine whether Congress will pass legislation this year aimed at curbing gun violence or if guns will become a hot-button issue in the 2014 elections, advocates and experts said last week.

With four gun-related bills on their way to the full Senate after being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the past two weeks, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) now must decide how to bring them to the floor next month.

Reid said last week that he will meet with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, to determine what "we need to put together as a base bill to start legislating on the Senate floor."

A key factor in that decision will be whether Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) can find what he calls the "sweet spot" of compromise to win Republican votes for his bill to expand background checks beyond licensed dealers to include sales between individuals, at gun shows and over the Internet.

Gun control groups call Schumer's bill the heart of the response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December. Committee Republicans voted against it, and the National Rifle Association opposes it.

Republicans did vote for two other bills: funding for school safety, and a measure outlawing gun trafficking whose sponsors include Leahy and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

The NRA has not commented on either of those bills.

The fourth, a ban on assault weapons, won no GOP votes in committee and faces strong opposition by the NRA, Republicans and pro-gun Democrats.

"What happens between now and April will be discussions of compromises to make changes that draw more votes," said gun control expert Arkadi Gerney of the liberal Center for American Progress.

The NRA and conservative Heritage Foundation declined to comment for this story.

As Reid puts together a new legislative package, a key question is whether he will include the ban on assault weapons. If Reid includes the ban in packaged legislation, it likely would be defeated and guns will become a campaign issue. If Republicans block gun legislation, Gerney said, "they will pay" in the 2014 election.

Democrats and gun control advocates say there is a new political climate on guns in the aftermath of Newtown. Polls show most Americans want universal background checks to block felons and other ineligible buyers from getting guns.

Gerney noted that Mayors Against Illegal Guns, using New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's money, and the new PAC created by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, a shooting victim, intend to spend money to defeat members of Congress opposed to gun legislation.

If Reid excludes the ban, as many predict, that means Schumer found Republican support for his measure and the gun legislation might pass.

Either way, the Senate will debate and consider amendments for the package, which will require 60 votes to pass.

"The real question is whether we can get [Republican] support for a background check bill that can be included in the package, and that could take us through the Senate," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a moderate-Democratic think tank.

Schumer negotiated for the support of pro-gun Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), but Coburn objected to making people who aren't dealers keep records of sales. He said that would lead to a national gun registry. Schumer said it won't.

Last week, the committee approved on a party-line vote what Schumer called an "ideal" version of a background check bill. But he stressed he's open to changes by Republicans.

Gillibrand accepted changes to her bill offered by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), an NRA supporter and the Judiciary Committee's top Republican. He voted for her bill in committee. His support means the bill is expected to pick up GOP votes on the Senate floor.

Hatalsky said there are 40 senators for the background checks, and another 30 who favor it but who have concerns about how it would work. "My hope is that those people can come together," she said.

She said she believes gun legislation will pass but with amendments that will weaken it.


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