Senate prepares to consider gun violence prevention legislation

The Senate is expected to begin consideration of gun violence legislation the week of April 8 after members return from their spring recess, but the package will not include a proposed ban on assault weapons.

The legislation, introduced March 21 by Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as S. 649, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013, includes provisions from the following bills that were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March along with a bill to ban assault weapons.

S. 374, the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2013. This bill would strengthen background check requirements and the national instant check system by requiring background checks for gun show purchases and all private sales, with narrow exceptions for family transactions, hunting exchanges and life-threatening exigencies. In addition, the bill would provide support to states to improve reporting of mental health records to the National Instant Check System (NICS).

S. 54, the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013. The legislation addresses “straw purchases” of firearms that occur when a person who is not legally qualified to acquire a firearm or may wish to do so anonymously has someone else purchase the firearm on his or her behalf. Such straw purchases, which account for nearly a third of all firearms involved in federal trafficking investigations, are regularly used by criminals, criminal gangs, and persons disqualified by age.

S. 146, School Safety Enhancements Act of 2013. This bill would amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to authorize school security grants by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to be used for the installation of surveillance equipment and the establishment of hotlines or tiplines for the reporting of potentially dangerous students and situations.

Announcing that his gun violence legislation would include only three bills that have been approved by the Judiciary Committee, Reid emphasized that he will ensure that, after debate on the bill has begun, “a ban on assault weapons, limits to high-capacity magazines and mental health provisions will receive votes along with other amendments.” He also stressed that, in order be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed disappointment that S. 150, her bill to ban assault weapons, would not be part of Reid’s bill as introduced, but she said the fight is far from over. Feinstein’s bill would prohibit the sale, transfer, importation and manufacture of 157 dangerous military-style assault weapons and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The ABA voiced its support for legislation to address gun violence, including an assault weapons ban, in a March 6 letter from President Laurel G. Bellows to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ranking Member Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

The key bills approved by the Senate committee are each constitutionally valid, as they are all presumptively lawful regulations as described by the Supreme Court,” Bellows wrote. “Neither requirements for background checks nor authorization for prosecution of straw purchasers have any cognizable impact on lawful gun owners,” she said, and both proposals “are constitutional and necessary as sound policy steps to reduce the threat of gun violence in our communities.”

Bellows emphasized that recent public polling suggests that for the first time there is broad recognition by the American public, including gun owners, that gaps in the background check system for gun sales still allow easy, unchecked access to guns by criminals and the mentally ill.

Bellows acknowledged that “no single action by Congress will prevent all mass shootings or result in a background check system that is 100 percent enforceable,” but added that “we must act now to improve the weak and flawed laws at issue.”

She also reiterated the ABA’s opposition to any amendments that may be offered to add mandatory minimum sentences to the gun bills. Mandatory minimum sentences are “unnecessary and could result in unintended and unforeseeable injustices – as is the case with all mandatory minimum sentences – and higher cost to taxpayers,” she said.

Meeting with families of gun violence victims at the White House March 28, President Obama urged the Senate to move quickly on the gun violence legislation, stressing that all of the proposals in S. 649, as well as a ban on assault weapons, are consistent with the Second Amendment and would not infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners.

“What they will do is keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people who put others at risk. This is our best chance in more than a decade to take common-sense steps that will save lives,” he said.

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