Assault weapons ban being readied for Senate action

Senate lawmakers today are beginning what appears to be their final push to pass gun control legislation in response to the deadly massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to markup - essentially, readying for debate - an assault weapons ban bill, which would also ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as three other bills.

The assault weapons ban, however, is seen as having virtually no chance to get through Congress.

The decision by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to nonetheless consider it in committee signals that the Senate is taking a piecemeal approach to passing gun control legislation, rather than trying to pass a comprehensive bill. That's because the assault weapons bill, which has a good chance to clear the committee, would almost certainly drag down the other gun control legislation if it were part of a comprehensive package presented to the full Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the bill's sponsor, has acknowledged that her bill faced "very tough" prospects on the Senate floor.

The other gun control bills scheduled to be taken up are a Leahy-backed measure to combat illegal arms trafficking; a bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., focused on school safety; and a bill mandating universal background checks sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Schumer bill would require nearly universal background checks resembling a measure he proposed two years ago. It will lack some of the provisions he tentatively had agreed to with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had been talking to Senate Democrats in an effort to ease the background check bill's passage through the Senate. One of the provisions not included is an appeals mechanism for veterans barred from obtaining guns because they have been formally declared to have serious mental difficulties.

Without the conservative Coburn's backing, any background check bill will have a more difficult time clearing the Senate. However, Democrats will continue discussions with Republicans and an aide told the Associated Press that talks will continue with Coburn.

Schumer's bill could be amended to reflect any bipartisan agreement that is reached by the time gun legislation reaches the floor, probably in April.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also have been involved in the background check negotiations and said in a joint statement that they would continue looking for an agreement with other senators.

"It is clear that ultimately we will need bipartisan support," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview.

Leaders of the GOP-run House have said they will act after the Senate produces legislation.

Meantime, a study out this week showed that states with the most gun control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths, suggesting the sheer quantity of measures might make a difference.

But the research leaves many questions unanswered and won't settle the debate over how policymakers should respond to recent high-profile acts of gun violence.

In the dozen or so states with the most gun control-related laws, far fewer people were shot to death or killed themselves with guns than in the states with the fewest laws, the study found. Overall, states with the most laws had a 42 percent lower gun death rate than states with the least number of laws.