Senate panel approves background check, school safety bills

Washington — A bill that would expand background checks on gun purchasers was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on party lines Tuesday, its prospect of Senate approval diminished with the withdrawal of a key GOP supporter.

The Senate panel also approved a bill that would provide schools with federal grants for school safety programs, which could include the hiring of armed guards.

The school safety bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was approved by all Democrats and three Republicans on the panel, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa. It is expected to also win GOP support when considered by the full Senate and is likely the legislation will be approved.

But the bill to expand background checks is in trouble.

Grassley, who was in negotiations with Democrats over the bill, said he’d consider voting for the legislation. But on Tuesday he pulled his support, saying, like Republicans, that he feared a universal background check would result in a “gun registry” that would allow the federal government to keep tabs on all gun owners.

“I think it’s a slippery slope,” Grassley said. “The more I thought about the bill, the more difficult it became to support it.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Grassley “demeans the argument” by raising the specter of federal agents seizing guns.

“It’s sad. Right after Newtown, there was a view that maybe a place where we could all come together was background checks… ,” Schumer said.

In the end, the panel approved the background check bill 10-8, supported by all the Democrats and opposed by every Republican.

The bill would close a “loophole” in current federal law that allows gun purchasers to avoid a background check. Currently, guns sales by dealers require an FBI background check to make sure a prospective buyer is not a felon, domestic abuser or seriously mentally ill. Those people are barred under federal law from owning a gun.

But private sellers at gun shows, on the Internet or elsewhere don’t have to run a background check on their customers. Expanding background checks is at the heart of President Barack Obama’s proposals to regulate firearms. Citing a 1997 study, Obama has said as many as 40 percent of firearms are purchased without background checks, while others say there is no reliable current figure.

To try to win support for expanded background checks, 32 family members of victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School sent Judiciary Committee members a letter on Tuesday.

“In the midst of our anguish we have learned about the dangerous loopholes in our nation’s gun laws and we are compelled to speak out to save others from suffering what we have endured,” the letter said. “We are writing today to express our deep conviction and support for the President’s plan to reduce gun violence in America.”

Also on Tuesday, 26 gun-control activists from Newtown ended a 400-mile bike ride to Capitol Hill.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said it’s still not too late to cut a deal with Republicans by amending the legislation.

“I am very hopeful about these talks,” he said. “We could, and should, find common ground.”

Last week, another Republican in talks with Democrats on the background check bill, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, ended negotiations.

It appears Sens. Sue Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois are now the only Republicans likely to support universal background checks.

The Judiciary Committee has one more gun bill to consider, an assault weapons ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Considered the most controversial of the gun bills under consideration by Congress, the assault weapons ban is slated to be debated and voted upon by the Judiciary panel Thursday.