House makes first pivot toward crossing party lines in debate over gun laws

A group of bipartisan lawmakers called on House leadership to back a measure that would create stiffer penalties for people who straw purchase guns.

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In the lower chamber’s first pivot toward crossing party lines in the debate over gun laws, Republican Reps. Scott Rigell (Va.) and Patrick Meehan (Pa.) joined Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) on Tuesday to introduce a bill that would make it a felony to buy a gun with the intent to sell it to someone who is not able to legally purchase a firearm.

“We need to change the culture in America that says it’s really no big deal to buy a gun for someone else,” said Rigell.

“As a lifetime member of the NRA, as a firearm owner, and as a grandfather, I’ve got a problem with people who break the law using firearms because it inevitably puts pressure on my rights. When we punish the bad guys, we’re protecting the good guys.”

The lawmakers outlined their proposal with nearly 20 law enforcement officers standing behind them at a press conference.

The House bill is similar to a gun-trafficking measure introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) several weeks ago as well as the Senate's first bipartisan gun-related bill, introduced last week by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which also proposes to raise penalties for straw purchasers.

Rigell hasn’t talked with GOP leadership about the bill yet, but he said he’s spoken with several Republican colleagues who have had some questions about it but shown general support for the measure.

“I look forward to talking with [leadership] because we’ve got to take that next step, which is to get this bill to the floor,” said Rigell.

Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was pressed by reporters on whether he was interested in partnering the bill’s trafficking and straw purchasing elements with language that would close gun show “loopholes” that allow people to buy guns without a background check.

“We are concentrating on this bill,” said Cummings. “A lot of times folks try to have a very broad bill, and perhaps we’ll get to some of those other things, but today we’re concentrating on this bill.

“We don’t want to be in a position, where, because you can’t agree on everything, you do nothing.”

Rigell said he wasn’t interested in combining the bipartisan straw-purchasing bill unveiled on Tuesday with language closing the gun show “loopholes.”

Many conservative Republicans and Democrats in the House have difficulty backing a move to require every gun buyer to go through a background check because they see the government’s creation of a gun owner database as a federal intrusion on an individual’s rights. The National Rifle Association also opposes universal background checks.

Rigell acknowledged that the bill would not address many of the concerns raised in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school shooting two months ago, in which a gunman opened fire and killed 20 children and 6 adults.

Instead, the lawmakers emphasized that the legislation would solve a key problem that law enforcement officers and federal prosecutors have long complained about: lax penalties for people who sell and traffic guns to criminals.

Rigell said the bill protects citizens' Second Amendment rights but cracks down on criminals. He compared the bill to the “cultural change” that occurred when the government decided to outlaw drunken driving.

“We don’t represent that it solves every problem,” said Rigell of the bill. “It doesn’t address the cultural shifts and the [video] gaming industry. It doesn’t address the mental-health issue. Those are tough topics. We’re going to start out with what we agree on.”

“Right now it just really isn’t a big deal to buy a gun for somebody else and often times they are used for the worst purposes, and as a lawful gun owner I have a problem with that.”

The issue of gun trafficking came before the last Congress in a major way as lawmakers investigated the failed gun-tracking operation “Fast and Furious.” Former and current law enforcement officials testified before the House that they would often not pursue arrests and prosecutions of gun traffickers and straw purchasers because the penalties were relatively inconsequential.

The bipartisan bill introduced on Tuesday would increase the maximum penalty to 20 years for people who intentionally lie on their firearms license applications and people who organize and manage the trafficking of guns.

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