Gun control fight entering final round in Senate

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Senate lawmakers this week 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.

On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the "Assault Weapons Ban of 2013," which she introduced last month. The following day, the Judiciary Committee plans to consider the assault weapons ban, which would also ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as three other bills. 

The assault weapons ban 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. Feinstein herself acknowledged this week that her bill faced "very tough" prospects on the Senate floor.

The other gun control bills scheduled to be taken up Thursday 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.  

Because Judiciary Committee rules allow any senator to ask for a one-week delay, it is likely the markup will be postponed until March 7. (A spokesman for the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that no decision had been made but that "there are some shenanigans going on" because a final version of Schumer's bill has yet to be introduced.) The Judiciary Committee will put together final versions of the bills and vote on them, and the Senate leadership can then decide how to bring them to the Senate floor for consideration.

Schumer has been working with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and two other senators to reach compromise on the background check bill. The parties have reached an impasse over the issue of whether gun sellers should be forced to keep a record of gun sales.

By law, the federal government must destroy evidence of background checks within 24 hours - otherwise, some argue, the government would have a de facto federal gun registry. Schumer thus argues that sellers should be required to maintain a record of the sale.

The idea is that if a gun is used in a crime and is traced to the seller, the seller would be able to produce a record of the transaction. That incentivizes the seller to perform the background check. That's because he would be in trouble if he sold the weapon to someone who the government could show would have failed a background check.

Jim Kessler of the centrist-Democratic think tank Third Way, who was formerly with Americans for Gun Safety, called the records "critically important."

"It is very difficult to enforce a universal background check law without being able to ask someone to prove that they did the background check," he said.