Good Morning
Good Morning

Editorial: Congress shamefully splits on gun control

In January, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott invited

In January, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott invited New York gun owners to move to Texas. (Jan. 15, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The effort in Congress to do something to stem gun violence has become distressingly partisan. Votes last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee on a series of gun measures split almost completely along party lines.

It would be a shame if that divide -- Democrats for, Republican against -- were to doom reform in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and countless similar tragedies.

Democrats who control the commitee muscled four bills to the full Senate for consideration next month that would restrict assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition clips, require background checks for private gun sales, fund federal grants to improve school security and impose criminal penalties for gun trafficking. The committee's eight Republicans lined up against each measure, except for the trafficking bill, which Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina broke ranks to support.

The urgency to do something about mass shootings and the grinding day-to-day gun violence that claims about 32,000 lives a year may be flagging on Capitol Hill under heavy lobbying by the National Rifle Association and others. But it has not diminished outside the Beltway. Congress should enact these reasonable reforms.

The most critical provisions are those that would make it more difficult for guns initially sold legally to enter the black market.

Making it a felony for a "straw buyer" to purchase a gun for someone who could not legally buy it himself or herself would help deter traffickers who deliver guns into the hands of criminals. Right now a straw purchase is merely a paperwork violation rather than a federal cime.

Requiring background checks for private gun sales would help, too, by closing loopholes that allow people to buy firearms at gun shows or over the Internet with no checks required.

New York State has moved aggressively to police sales at gun shows after a sting revealed many sellers were not conducting the background checks the state requires. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced an agreement with show operators Thursday that will impose tighter controls. But many of the illegal guns that turn up in New York are bought in other states. Slowing that flow will require federal action.

By far the most contentious proposal in Congress is a ban on selected military-style assault weapons that would also limit the size of ammunition magazines.

Guns like the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that shooter Adam Lanza used to kill 20 small children and six others at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last December are the weapons of choice for mass murderers. Some would be banned if the Senate bill becomes law.

But while the legislation would outlaw 157 specific firearms, it would exempt 2,271 others. And before the previous assault-weapons ban lapsed in 2004, many gun manufacturers simply modified their products to skirt the law. Still, symbolism matters, so Congress should pass the new ban, particularly its provision limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. That would significantly curtail the kill power of mass shooters by forcing them to stop more often to reload.

Mass shootings and other gun violence has stunned, saddened and outraged the public. Congress must do what it can to slow the bloodshed.