Dems eye gun control in spending bill

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday said Democrats are eying tougher gun restrictions as part of a sweeping spending bill being considered in the lower chamber this week.

Democrats are weighing a proposal to expand mandatory background checks prior to gun sales as part of the Republicans' 2015 funding bill for the Commerce and Justice departments, Hoyer said.

"[That] is being discussed," he said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "It is possible."

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Hoyer said the Democrats will likely also push a separate amendment to preserve a federal rule requiring border-state gun dealers to report bulk purchases of certain semiautomatic rifles, a mandate Republicans are trying to undo in the spending package.

Echoing officials in the Obama administration, Hoyer characterized the reporting requirement as an important "law enforcement tool to determine whether or not there are large purchases by gangs or by drug dealers."

Republicans disagree. And earlier in the month the Appropriations Committee approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) that would bar the use of federal funds for maintaining such a database.

The debate on gun control reignited last Friday, when police say Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old former Santa Barbara City College student, went on a shooting spree that ended in four deaths, including his own. Elliot had also stabbed three others, the authorities say, bringing the death toll to seven.

Hoyer argued Wednesday that, while it remains unclear what impact if any a system of expanded background checks would have had in Rodger's case, Congress has an obligation to do everything it can to keep firearms from the hands of the severely mentally ill.

"In this instance it may not have made a difference, but it's clear that in many instances it would have made a difference," Hoyer said.

"And it's also clear the overwhelming majority of the American public think it makes sense to make sure somebody is mentally stable before they buy something that, misused, can cause damage to a lot of people very quickly," he added.

The Santa Barbara tragedy is the latest in a string of high-profile shootings in recent years that include deadly rampages at a congressional campaign event in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011; at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012; and at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., later the same year.

In each instance, gun control advocates on Capitol Hill have pushed for tougher new firearms laws, and in each instance those efforts have been blocked by Republican leaders who oppose any such restrictions.

Hoyer said Wednesday that, given Congress's record on the issue, he's not holding his breath waiting for tougher laws in the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings.

"I continue not to have high expectations," he said.

The minority whip suggested no changes to gun laws are forthcoming until the Democrats gain more power in Congress.

"The American people, 70 percent of them, apparently agree with us," Hoyer said. "If that's the case, then they ought to vote that way and elect a Congress that will, in fact, pass ... background checks."

The House is expected to vote on the Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill before the end of the week.