Gun control legislation the Senate debates next month will include an expansion of federal background checks for firearms buyers, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday in a victory for advocates of gun restrictions.
The announcement underscores that Democrats intend to take an aggressive approach in the effort to broaden the checks, currently required only for transactions involving federally licensed firearms dealers.
President Barack Obama and many supporters of curbing guns in and out of Congress consider an expansion of the system to private gun sales to be the most effective response lawmakers could take in the wake of December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. The system is designed to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others considered potentially dangerous.
The overall gun measure the Senate debates will also include legislation boosting penalties for illegal gun trafficking and modestly expand a grant program for school security, said Reid, D-Nev.
What won't be in this bill is an assault weapons ban after Reid concluded that there was just not enough support in the Senate for it.
The bill that Reid is putting forward will have to get at least 60 votes to get past a GOP-led filibuster, he explained. So by starting with a pared-down bill, Reid said he could at least get a gun control measure on the Senate floor. At that point, the assault weapons ban and other less popular measures could be voted on as amendments.
"I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there," Reid said. "People are deserving of votes on their issues they feel so strongly about."
Reid said that during Congress' upcoming two-week break, he hopes senators will strike a bipartisan compromise on broadening background checks. But without a deal, he indicated the gun bill would include a stricter version approved this month by the Senate Judiciary Committee expanding the system to virtually all private gun transactions with few exceptions.
"I want to be clear: In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks," Reid said in a written statement.
Gun control advocates, while dismayed at the absence of an assault weapons ban, are forging ahead to build support for the pared-down bill.
Opponents including the National Rifle Association say background checks are easily sidestepped by criminals and threaten creation of a government file on gun owners - which is illegal under federal law.
If not included in the overall gun bill, an expansion of background checks could have been offered as an amendment. But that would have likely meant it would have needed support from 60 of the 100 senators to prevail - a difficult hurdle for Democrats.