Gun talks hit a snag in Senate over universal background checks

The centerpiece of President Obama’s gun violence agenda is in peril amid a deadlock among Senate negotiators over how to implement and enforce a proposal requiring background checks for private gun sales.

With time running out for talks, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) remains optimistic about reaching an agreement. 

But gun control proponents have grown skeptical about whether Schumer’s main Republican counterpart, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), is acting in good faith.

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Schumer argues — and gun control groups agree — that records must be kept to ensure background checks are conducted before private transactions. Otherwise, any expansion of background checks would be unenforceable, they assert.

But Coburn worries that such a paperwork requirement could lead to a national gun registry, which gun rights groups staunchly oppose, according to Senate sources familiar with the talks.

Obama has ratcheted up his attention on Coburn in recent days. Coburn told reporters the president called him Monday and Thursday but declined to reveal specifics of the conversations.

Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) may have to focus more on another GOP negotiator, Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), as the key to a deal, rather than Coburn.

Kirk is still upbeat about forging a bipartisan agreement and could reach out to other GOP colleagues to build support for the emerging legislation, an aide said Monday.

“Sen. Kirk is committed to finding a workable solution that gets a bipartisan bill,” Kirk’s spokesman Lance Trover said. “The senator believes there is a workable solution for all sides.”

Kirk and centrist Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) announced Monday afternoon they had reached a deal with Democrats to give law enforcement officials greater authority to prosecute gun trafficking and straw purchasing. The legislation would stiffen penalties to up to 25 years in prison.

One important question is who would be responsible for maintaining the record of a private sale. It could be the seller, or it could be a gun shop that conducts a background check on behalf of a private seller, as is required in Colorado and Oregon at gun shows.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to mark up a series of gun violence bills on Thursday after having already delayed the session one week to give Schumer and Coburn more time. 

Leahy said the markup could spill into next week, giving Schumer and Coburn even more time, but the deadline is fast approaching. 

If they fail to reach a deal by the end of the markup, it will be difficult to include background-check legislation in the gun violence package headed to the Senate floor.

Groups from both sides of the debate agree background checks are the lynchpin of Obama’s agenda. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban some military-style guns has little chance of passing.

Schumer has called background checks the “sweet spot” of gun control legislation.

“It’s the fundamental building block of any serious gun violence prevention system,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Horwitz said Coburn’s opposition to requiring records for private background checks calls into question whether the GOP lawmaker really supports expanded checks.

“It’s such a non-issue to me, the whole thing seems like a big stall tactic,” he said. “Saying there shouldn’t be a record, to me, is not negotiating in good faith.”

Under current federal law, background checks are required only for firearms purchased from licensed dealers. Dealers must keep a paper record of a background check and transaction, a form 4473, but are not required to submit them to a federal database.

However, some gun dealers complain agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have copied their records, sparking concerns the information may find its way into a national database. Federal law allows the ATF to audit gun dealers’ records once a year.

“[The ATF] is going to gun dealers and saying we want to copy all the information on 4473s. They have the potential to put that information into a national gun registry,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America.

Because records are not kept of private transactions, it’s difficult to estimate how many of them happen each year. But gun policy experts estimate they could make up as much as 40 percent of sales. Compiling a national gun registry would be very difficult as long as they remain unrecorded. 

Schumer has already agreed to exempt transfers of weapons to family members from background checks and has said he is open to a variety of record-keeping methods for private sales. 

If Coburn does not relent on the final sticking point, he may have to drop out of the negotiations.

“They can’t wait forever. There aren’t that many options,” Horwitz said.

The National Rifle Association, one of Washington’s most powerful interest groups, opposes an expansion of background checks. It has declined to comment on Schumer’s effort until legislative language becomes public.

The other bills on the agenda for Thursday’s markup are the renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, the legislation cracking down on firearms trafficking and a bill to enhance safety at schools, backed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).