Updated: March 7, 2013 12:08PM
Just hours after the carnage at Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama spoke with raw emotion of the need for action to prevent tragedies like the December massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary. Three months later, members of Congress are casting their first votes in answer to that summons.
The hard-fought politics of gun control guarantee that a long, tortuous legislative journey lies ahead. One proposal that’s not even on the table: the National Rifle Association’s call for every school to have armed guards. Plenty of school districts already do that on their own, though.
A look at what’s being considered Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee as Obama and the Republican-controlled House let the Senate take the lead on where to go after Newtown.
ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN
WHAT: Ban 157 specific military-style assault weapons. Ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. More than 2,200 specific hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns, listed by make and model, would be exempt from the ban, as would any weapons that people already legally own.
KEY PLAYER: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also sponsored the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban.
PRO: Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines have been used at a number of recent mass shootings, including Newtown and the movie theater shooting last summer in Aurora, Colo. The weapons allow a shooter to fire a large number of rounds quickly and without having to reload. Supporters of the proposed ban say that while it wouldn’t guarantee an end to such attacks, it could make such attacks less deadly and less likely. They cite a study showing that gun crimes using assault weapons declined by 17 percent to 72 percent across an assortment of cities from 1995 to 2003, during the last assault weapons ban.
CON: Opponents say the last assault weapons ban didn’t work and this one wouldn’t either. They argue that people should be allowed to buy the firearms they want. They say assault weapons were used in just 2 percent to 8 percent of gun crimes before the last ban took effect, so a ban wouldn’t make much difference. And they point to the millions of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines already legally in private hands that would not be affected by the ban.
ODDS: The bill may advance out of the committee, but it has virtually no chance of passing the full Senate.
UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS
WHAT: Require far more firearms purchasers to undergo background checks, in order to block sales to people with criminal records or significant mental health problems. Details of the legislation are still under negotiation, so the bill could change as it advances.
KEY PLAYER: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
PRO: Current law only requires background checks on sales by the 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, omitting private transactions at gun shows, in person and online. By some estimates, up to 40 percent of gun sales don’t require background checks. From the start of the federal background check system in 1998 through 2010, about 2 percent of the 188 million applications for firearms transactions have been rejected, according to the Justice Department. The system blocks nearly 80,000 sales a year, which supporters say shows that the system works and should be expanded.
CON: Opponents say background checks will never be universal — because criminals will never submit to them. They say studies show that most guns used in crimes were obtained from friends, family or illegal gun traffickers and that more background checks would only encourage criminals to buy more firearms illegally. They also believe that expanding background checks would pave the way for a federal registry of gun owners, something they vehemently oppose.
ODDS: The bill is likely to advance out of committee, but its odds on the Senate floor are hard to assess until the final version is set.
STOPPING FIREARMS TRAFFICKING, STRAW PURCHASES
WHAT: Create a criminal statute that specifically prohibits firearms trafficking and straw purchases, in which someone legally entitled to have a gun buys one for someone who is barred from such purchases. The maximum penalty would be 15 years in prison, or 25 years if the straw purchaser had cause to believe the gun would be used to commit a crime of violence.
KEY PLAYER: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
PRO: Federal officials say they need stronger legal tools to combat illegal firearms trafficking. They now rely on laws that prohibit making false statements in connection with gun sales, which are often seen as “paperwork” violations with low penalties.
CON: There were some early concerns that the bill could trip up dealers or people who didn’t realize that a person they bought a gun for was legally barred from owning one.
ODDS: Passed the committee on an 11-7 vote, and likely to be approved by the full Senate.
SCHOOL AND CAMPUS SAFETY
WHAT: Reauthorize a program providing 50-50 matching grants for school safety improvements such as classroom locks and video cameras. Some 5,500 schools have received Secure Our Schools grants, but the program has expired. The bill would authorize $40 million a year for 10 years, although that amount could change. It would also authorize the Justice Department to create a National Center for Campus Public Safety to help educate and train campus officials.
KEY PLAYERS: Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Mark Warner, D-Va.
PRO: With school shootings on the rise, supporters say it makes sense to help schools improve security.
CON: Some say the bill is too expensive.
ODDS: Likely to advance out of committee but ultimate fate depends on the final version of the legislation.