Key provision of gun bill could be stripped after NRA opposition

A central part of the Senate’s gun control package is in danger of being gutted as the National Rifle Association voices opposition.

Legislation to crack down on gun trafficking has garnered rare Republican support in both chambers and has long been seen as low-hanging fruit. 

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Increased penalties on straw purchases of guns sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and looked like a safe bet to win Senate approval even as other provisions — including the expanded background checks that remain a goal for gun control supporters — ran into trouble. 

Now the straw-purchasing bill could be in danger because of NRA demands to change the language so law enforcement officials would have to prove that a straw purchaser intended to commit a crime or further the commission of a crime by buying a gun for someone else.

The bill as written would penalize anyone who purchases a gun for someone prohibited from owning it or for someone intending to use it in a crime.

The NRA argues this language could penalize people unfairly. 

If a person buys a gun and sells it to another person, who in turn sells it to yet another person, the bill’s language could be used to punish the initial buyer of the gun, the NRA says.

“It potentially holds people liable for the intention of parties far down the chain of possession,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam wrote in an email to The Hill. 

The NRA also wants to change language allowing the government to confiscate a convicted straw purchaser’s guns and ammunition, according to a draft copy of the group’s proposed changes to the measure.

“It overrides special protection against forfeiture of firearms that Congress enacted in 1986, in response to [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’] history of seizing entire gun collections or store inventories based on small numbers of illegal sales,” Arulanandam said.

The move has outraged supporters of the bill’s language, including House sponsor Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

“Reports about the draft NRA proposal suggest that it would water down even current law, making it harder — not easier —for law enforcement officials to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by increasing the threshold for convicting straw purchasers,” she said in a statement to The Hill.

The straw-purchasing bill has garnered five House Republican co-sponsors — Reps. Pat Meehan (Pa.), Scott Rigell (Va.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Pete King (N.Y.), and Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.) — and Mark Kirk (Ill.) in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) was the only Republican on the panel to vote in favor of the measure.

On Tuesday, Grassley told The Hill that he still supports the measure generally but that changes to its language need to be made in order for him to vote for it on the Senate floor.

“I voted for the trafficking bill in the Judiciary Committee, but it was far from a perfect piece of legislation,” Grassley said.“At the time, I explained that there were changes that needed to be made before I would support it on the floor.”

Grassley didn’t specify what changes he’d need to see but said he’d oppose the overall bill if it was coupled with universal background checks or an assault weapons ban.

“I have no doubt that both the NRA and the Mayors [Against Illegal Guns] are both seeking changes,” he said.“We don’t have any word from the majority leader if he’ll keep intact the bill that cleared the committee or if he’ll make changes. But as long as it’s coupled with universal background checks or an assault weapons ban, any trafficking legislation will have trouble passing.”

King said it is vital to make straw purchasing a felony, which the measure would do.

“As long as straw purchasers are willing to buy on behalf of criminals, law enforcement needs effective tools to pursue these individuals by making this activity a federal criminal offense instead of a slap on the wrist,” King said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has included the measure as one of three staples in the upper chamber’s gun control package, which is expected to be voted on next week.

Responding to Republican and NRA opposition, Reid already has stripped from the bill bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which are expected to be offered as amendments.

Universal background checks are included in the package, but Republicans have promised to filibuster the bill unless gun sales between friends are exempt from those expanded rules.

While gun control advocates are actively pressing for the straw-purchasing bill, they acknowledge that without stricter background checks, criminals could still obtain guns through private sales.