Senators quietly craft a compromise on guns

Washington -- Away from Washington's heated debate on gun control, a bipartisan group of senators -- none from Connecticut -- are trying to salvage part of President Obama's gun-control agenda.

"We're getting there. We're working on things," said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat who has earned top marks from the National Rifle Association.

With an assault weapons ban and other measures promoted by Obama and supported by Connecticut's congressional delegation out of reach politically, these senators are focusing on measures that have a chance of congressional approval. They include an expansion of the background checks conducted by the FBI on gun purchasers at dealers, and increasing federal penalties for gun trafficking and "straw purchases" -- or buying a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one.

Manchin and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are negotiating with a group of Senate Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Ron Kirk of Illinois and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Coburn said Tuesday, "We're not there yet."

But he indicated a deal is within reach. Coburn is concerned with how best to expand background checks -- now mainly conducted on sales at dealers -- to private sales at gun shows, on the Internet and other places.

The Democrats propose that private gun sellers run background checks at a dealer that is already running them on their customers -- for a fee.

Coburn wants private buyers and sellers in rural areas to run the FBI background checks on the Internet. He also does not want records of these sales to be kept, something Democrats say is needed for enforcement.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he's spoken to Manchin but isn't aboard, at least not yet.

Another Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is expected to support legislation on gun trafficking, straw purchases and background checks, having voted for tough gun control measures in the past.

All Democrats, two independents who caucus with Democrats and at least five Republicans must vote to end an expected GOP filibuster on all gun control bills.

Brian Fallon, spokesperson for Schumer, said winning Coburn over is key.

Coburn belongs to the conservative wing of the Republican Party and has an "A" rating from the NRA, which strongly opposes all of Obama's gun-control measures, even expanded background checks.

Coburn "can move other (GOP) senators," Fallon said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hopes to vote on four gun safety-related bills probably next week. One would expand background checks, another would make trafficking and straw purchases felonies, a third would ban assault weapons and the final bill would provide school districts with federal grants to hire guards and implement other safety measures.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the sponsor of a bill that would reinstate bans on assault weapons and on high-capacity magazines that expired in 2004, said she hoped her bill will be voted out of committee.

But she said "it will be very tough" to win Senate approval of her bill.

Even so, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on Feinstein's bill.

Among the witnesses will be Neil Heslin, the father of a 6-year-old boy who was slain in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown Dec. 14.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he's still optimistic a broader package, maybe one that includes a high-capacity magazine ban if not an assault weapons ban, could be approved by Congress.

"I think we can build consensus around some things," he said.

Any gun control bill approved by the Senate would have to face a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

That is expected to be difficult.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., said she and the rest of a group of House Democrats promoting gun control invited all Republicans to join them in a discussion Tuesday on the expansion of background checks.

"Not one of them showed up," McCarthy said.