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.
The results are based on an analysis of 2007-2010 gun-related homicides and suicides from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers also used data on gun control measures in all 50 states compiled by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a well-known gun control advocacy group. They compared states by dividing them into four equal-sized groups according to the number of gun laws.
The results were published online Wednesday in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
More than 30,000 people nationwide die from guns every year nationwide, and there's evidence that gun-related violent crime rates have increased since 2008, a journal editorial noted.
During the four-years studied, there were nearly 122,000 gun deaths, 60 percent of them suicides.
"Our motivation was really to understand what are the interventions that can be done to reduce firearm mortality," said Dr. Eric Fleegler, the study's lead author and an emergency department pediatrician and researcher at Boston Children's Hospital.
He said his study suggests but doesn't prove that gun laws -- or something else -- led to fewer gun deaths.
Fleegler is also among hundreds of doctors who have signed a petition urging President Barack Obama and Congress to pass gun safety legislation, a campaign organized by the advocacy group Doctors for America.
Gun rights advocates have argued that strict gun laws have failed to curb high murder rates in some cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. Fleegler said his study didn't examine city-level laws, while gun control advocates have said local laws aren't as effective when neighboring states have lax laws.
Previous research on the effectiveness of gun laws has had mixed results, and it's a "very challenging" area to study, said Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center For Gun Policy. He was not involved in the current study.
The strongest kind of research would require comparisons between states that have dissimilar gun laws but otherwise are nearly identical, "but there isn't a super nice twin for New Jersey," for example, a state with strict gun laws, Webster noted.
Fleegler said his study's conclusions took into account factors also linked with gun violence, including poverty, education levels and race, which vary among the states.
The average annual gun death rate ranged from almost 3 per 100,000 in Hawaii to 18 per 100,000 in Louisiana. Hawaii had 16 gun laws, and along with New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts was among states with the most laws and fewest deaths. States with the fewest laws and most deaths included Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
But there were outliers: South Dakota, for example, had just two guns laws but few deaths.
Editorial author Dr. Garen Wintemute, director the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, said the study doesn't answer which laws, if any, work.
Wintemute said it's likely that gun control measures are more readily enacted in states with few gun owners -- a factor that might have more influence on gun deaths than the number of laws.