House Judiciary chairman rejects universal checks on gun purchases

The House Judiciary Committee will not include a universal background check system in legislation it produces to reduce gun violence, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said Wednesday.

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Goodlatte told reporters that his committee would focus on cracking down on illegal firearms and improving the existing check system. But he said he did not support “universal” background checks because of concerns that they would lead to a national gun registry, which critics have argued would represent an invasion of privacy for law-abiding gun owners.

“The fact of the matter is, we need to look at all of these issues, but I think where we’re going to find the ability to produce legislation is going to be focused on two things primarily,” the chairman said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “One is improving the background check system, but universal background checks I do not think will be part of that.”

Goodlatte’s opposition throws a wrench into a central piece of the Obama administration’s plan for reducing gun violence following the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and other recent mass shootings. 

He also reiterated his opposition to the renewal of an assault weapons ban, another item on the Obama agenda that is seen as a tougher sell in both the House and Senate.

A bipartisan group in the Senate is working on a proposal to create a universal background check system, and some Republicans in both chambers have warmed to the idea. But the National Rifle Association is aggressively opposing the push on the grounds that such a move would be unworkable without keeping records on all private gun owners.

Goodlatte voiced opposition to a registry, arguing that it was not comparable to other items that currently require registration, such as cars.

“Cars are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Firearms are,” he said.

He criticized lax enforcement of current gun laws and said the committee should focus on improving the existing system, which he said was plagued by high rates of people giving false information without fear of prosecution. At the same time, he was cool to the idea of a related priority for the Obama administration — increasing funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to enforce existing laws.

“I think they do have the wherewithal,” he said.

Goodlatte disputed the characterization of a “gun show loophole” in current law that allows gun buyers to skirt background checks.

“First of all, let’s make it very clear: There is no gun show loophole. There is an exemption for individuals,” he said.

People who buy weapons for the purpose of committing a crime, he said, don’t go through a background check because they don’t buy guns from a licensed dealer in the first place.

“So it makes more sense from my point of view,” Goodlatte said, “to focus on cracking down on those people.”

While the Senate has begun hearings on gun control, Goodlatte said no decisions have been made on when the Judiciary Committee might hold hearings on the issue.

Goodlatte’s committee also has jurisdiction over immigration, and he reiterated his resistance to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that Democrats view as essential to a comprehensive overhaul of the system. Yet he left himself some wiggle room rhetorically, saying there were different definitions of what constitutes a “path to citizenship.”

“There’s a broad spectrum between deportation and an easy, special pathway to citizenship,” he said.

Goodlatte praised the efforts of conservative Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to work out a bipartisan compromise, but he would not endorse the principles that Rubio’s group laid out last month. “I have concerns about a lot of the different proposals I’ve seen,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee has begun hearings on immigration reform and plans to draft legislation, but Goodlatte has put no timetable on those efforts and said he opposed “a rush to judgment.”