Judiciary panel approves bill to crack down on illegal firearms trafficking

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved legislation to crack down on the illegal trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms.

The bill was approved in an 11-7 vote largely along party lines. Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was the only GOP lawmaker to vote yes.

With strong opposition to proposals that seek to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity clips, and institute universal background checks, the illegal tracking bill likely has the best chance of any gun violence bill of passing Congress this session.

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It is the first of four bills under consideration by Judiciary. 

The panel also began marking up legislation from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ban certain semi-automatic weapons. It concluded work on several amendments before tabling the bill for further discussion to allow Feinstein and other senators to attend an unrelated meeting. It is unclear if work on the bill will resume Thursday. 

All of the bills are expected to eventually reach the Senate floor, where a final bill could be crafted. It remains to be decided whether the bills will be merged into one package by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Keeping them separate would allow Senate Democrats to avoid the prospect of staunch GOP opposition to a federal assault weapons ban from scuttling the entire package.

Reid has promised an open process that would allow members to seek to amend the bill on the floor. 

Feinstein’s bill would ban the sale and manufacture of more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features.

“I don’t know why anyone would object to drying up these weapons over time,” Feinstein said. “While homicides in this country are down, mass killings are not … the time has come America, to step up.”

The legislation would also ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition and require people who already own assault rifles to use secure storage and safety devices.

Opponents say the proposal runs roughshod over Second Amendment rights and that self-protection is a natural right that shouldn’t come from the federal government.

Before adjourning, the committee voted down two amendments – one that would require annual reports from the Justice Department on all federal fire arms prosecutions, and a one that would exclude retired military personnel from the weapons ban.

An amendment to study the potential impact of a host of socio-economic factors, including poverty, IQ, availability of mental health services, history of childhood abuse, nutrition, and the effects of violence in media, entertainment and video games, passed the committee.

Feinstein’s bill faces perhaps the toughest climb of any of the gun bills before the committee. While Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said he has “reservations” about the legislation overall, he announced his intention to vote for it in committee so that it could get a broader hearing in the Senate.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act sponsored by Leahy would stiffen penalties for trafficking, increasing jail terms in some cases up to 25 years. It would cover sellers and purchasers involved in illegal transactions and would lower the threshold for determining the criminal intent of the parties involved.

Grassley agreed to back the measure after Leahy agreed to an amendment to prohibit the Department of Justice (DOJ) from conducting gun-walking operations such as “Fast and Furious,” an operation that may have resulted in the death of a U.S. border patrol agent.

Under the Grassley amendment, the DOJ could engage in similar sting operations only if the attorney general, deputy attorney general or head of the criminal division personally approves them after determining sufficient safeguards are in place.

The bill also strengthens the law prohibiting material false statements in connection with purchasing a firearm and increases penalties for purchasing a gun with intent to transfer it to someone involved in a violent crime or drug trafficking.

It would also outlaw illegal purchasers of firearms from smuggling weapons out of the country.

Despite voting against the measure, GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), John Cornyn (Texas) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), said they hoped to support the final bill when it hits the Senate floor for a vote. The three lawmakers are concerned some of the bill’s language is too broad and could sweep up law-abiding citizens.

“I have concerns that certain language … could potentially sweep too broadly and potentially sweep in innocent purchasers rather than those knowingly participating in violent crime," Cruz said. 

But Cruz said he was optimistic an agreement could be reached.

"I do think there is potential before this bill is voted on in the floor of the Senate to reach some bipartisan agreement that could end up having wide agreement.”

The bill is based on legislation introduced earlier this year by Leahy, but was modified after bipartisan talks involving centrist GOP Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Susan Collins (Maine), and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). 

Leahy and Collins unveiled the new measure earlier this week.

“The bill creates new specific criminal offenses for straw purchasing and the trafficking in firearms,” Collins said on the Senate floor Monday. “Instead of a slap on the wrist or treating this as if it were simply a paperwork violation, these crimes in our bill would be punishable by up to 25 years in prison.”

Some Republicans, however, predict the legislation will face a tough struggle to pass the GOP-controlled House.

This story was updated at 1:08 p.m.