Dems schedule votes this week on assault weapons ban, other gun reforms

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has planned a series of votes this week on President Obama's gun-control wish-list, including a ban on assault weapons.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has scheduled Thursday votes on four separate gun-control measures, including proposals to ban assault weapons, to make gun trafficking a federal crime, to provide schools with enhanced security protections and to expand background checks surrounding gun sales.

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Three of those measures were introduced last month. Only the background-check legislation is new this week.

The decision to stage separate votes, rather than bundle the measures together, is significant, as it will allow centrist Democrats wary of Obama's gun-control strategy to hand-pick which elements (if any) they want to support. It also ensures that the assault weapons ban – the most radioactive of the measures – is not automatically included in the package, thereby threatening the less controversial reforms.

The committee will allow amendments to each separate bill, a spokesperson said Monday.

A politically toxic topic on Capitol Hill for decades, gun control was thrust horribly onto Congress's radar in December, when a lone gunman killed 26 people – including 20 young children – at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

The massacre led Obama to launch a package of anti-gun-violence proposals, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have already met twice this year to consider them – the first time Congress has publicly examined the nation's gun laws in many years.

Many of Obama's proposals, however, have a difficult road ahead. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to bring to the floor whatever Leahy can move through his committee, Reid is also a long-time opponent of tougher gun laws, including Obama's push for a ban on assault weapons. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are also uniting against most of Obama's gun-reform proposals.

Given those political dynamics, gun-control supporters are focusing on one element of Obama's package they see as low-hanging fruit: an expansion of the criminal background check system for gun purchases.

Under current law, federally licensed gun dealers are required to screen all potential buyers through an FBI database to weed out felons, fugitives, spousal abusers, the severely mentally ill and other groups barred from buying or owning firearms. Unlicensed gun sellers, however, are not required to perform the same background checks – an enormous loophole that allows most anyone to buy weapons in the United States.

Obama and the Democrats are hoping to expand the screenings to all gun sales – an idea the National Rifle Association (NRA) championed after the Columbine massacre in 1999, but now opposes.

While Republicans have expressed some willingness to expand the background checks in the name of public safety, they're also wary that such a move will be accompanied by establishing a new system of gun registration, which they adamantly oppose.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said over the weekend that that sticking point, more than any other, is preventing a bipartisan agreement on expanding background checks.

"There absolutely will not be record-keeping on legitimate, law-abiding gun owners in this country," Coburn said on the "Fox News Sunday" program. "If they want to eliminate the benefits of actually trying to prevent the sales to people who are mentally ill and to criminals, all they have to do is to create a record-keeping. That will kill this bill."

Offering a ray of hope for gun-control advocates, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) – a long-time opponent of tougher gun laws – said over the weekend that he's eying his own legislation for expanding the background check system.

"The Congress is going to act on this issue,” Goodlatte told Roll Call on Friday. “The Senate is at work on it, and we are as well. Our goal is to do anything we can do keep firearms out of the hands of people who should not have them.”

Goodlatte's comments mark a sharp shift for House GOP leaders, who had previously indicated they would not move on any gun-control measures until the Senate passed a bill.