House Dems push federal grants to help states retrieve guns from criminals

A pair of House Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at removing guns from criminals and others barred from owning them.

Offered by Reps. Mike Thompson (Calif.) and Jackie Speier (Calif.), the proposal would provide federal grant money to states that launch programs to remove guns from those who buy them legally but later forfeit their ownership rights by either committing a crime or being deemed severely mentally ill.

The lawmakers said the bill will bolster public safety without trampling on constitutional freedoms.

“No matter which side of this debate you are on, no one wants criminals or people with a history of dangerous mental illness to have guns,” Thompson, the chairman of a new Democratic task force formed to fight gun violence, said in a statement. "This bill does nothing to limit a law abiding citizen’s Second Amendment rights. It simply gives states an incentive to develop successful programs that will keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn’t have them."

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The legislation arrives as President Obama and most congressional Democrats are urging tougher gun laws in response to December's shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman stormed into an elementary school and killed 26 people – including 20 young children – before killing himself.

Behind Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on four separate bills related to gun violence, including proposals to ban assault rifles, expand background checks, crack down on gun trafficking and bolster school safety.

Republicans, however, are practically unanimous in their opposition to tougher gun laws, and even some centrist Democrats are pushing back against Obama's legislative wish-list. Given those political dynamics, Democratic gun-control supporters are searching for smaller steps to keep weapons out of the hands of violent people.

Thompson and Speier think they've threaded that needle.

Under their proposal, the Justice Department would offer grants to states that create programs to disarm people who are prohibited from owning guns. Such programs would have to offer targeted gun owners an opportunity to get rid of their firearms voluntarily before the state takes steps to retrieve them, the bill stipulates.

States would also be required to contribute relevant information to the National Criminal Instant Background Checks System (NICS), an FBI database through which licensed gun dealers must screen potential buyers before making a sale.

The Democrats' bill is modeled on a California initiative that's led to the removal of more than 10,000 guns from prohibited owners over the last six years, the lawmakers said.

Speier, who was shot during a 1978 trip to investigate the notorious Jonestown cult in South America, argued that even the National Rifle Association (NRA) would have a tough time arguing against the disarmament of dangerous people.

“The NRA is the first to say that we need to get the guns out of the hands of criminals. This bill does just that," Speier said. "We anxiously await their support."