WASHINGTON — Democrats gave a boost Tuesday to the pillar of President Barack Obama's plans for reducing gun violence, pushing a bill requiring nearly universal federal background checks for firearms buyers through the Senate Judiciary Committee over solid Republican opposition.
The proposal still faces a difficult path through Congress, where GOP lawmakers say it would have little impact on crime and warn that it is a precursor to a federal registry of gun owners. Such a listing is forbidden by federal law and is anathema to conservatives and the National Rifle Association.
The committee approved the bill 10-8, supported by every Democrat and opposed by all Republicans. It would require background checks for transactions between private individuals — they are now mandatory only for sales by licensed gun dealers — and expand a system designed to keep firearms from criminals, those with major mental problems and others.
"This isn't going to be a perfect bill," said its sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., acknowledging that it wouldn't end gun violence. "But it will sure reduce crimes."
The panel also voted 14-4 for a measure providing an additional $40 million annually for school safety improvements like classroom locks and training for teachers. Four Republicans joined Democrats in backing that measure, which initially called for a higher figure that was reduced in bargaining between Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Awaiting a committee vote Thursday is a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. That bill is expected to win panel approval but die in the full Senate when the chamber considers gun legislation, probably in April.
Tuesday's session came as lawmakers wrestle over responding to December's carnage at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 students and six educators. It also underscored the hurdles faced by expanded background checks, which has been seen as the most potent step lawmakers could take that has a fighting chance of passing Congress.
"Mass shootings would continue to occur despite universal background checks," said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee's top Republican. "Criminals will continue to steal guns and buy them illegally to circumvent the requirements. When that happens, we will be back here debating whether gun registration is needed. And when registration fails, then the next step is gun confiscation."
Schumer responded that that assertion "demeans the argument."
Schumer said he is continuing to negotiate with Republicans in hopes of crafting a compromise background-check bill. Talks failed with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Schumer also faces potential defections from a half-dozen moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states in the South and West who face re-election next year.
There are 53 Democrats in the 100-member Senate and two independents who usually side with them. Republicans are likely to force Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to advance legislation.
Leaders in the GOP-dominated House have expressed little support for extending background checks to private transactions.
At one point during Tuesday's debate, Schumer sounded almost wistful about the proposal's prospects.
"It's sad," he said. "Right after Newtown, there was a view that maybe the right place that we could all come together on was background checks."
According to the Justice Department, the government has conducted 118 million background checks since the system began in 1998 and rejected 2.1 million applicants because of them. Supporters of expanding the system say this shows how many dangerous people have been denied firearms, while opponents argue that the requirement simply drives criminals to get their weapons elsewhere.
Schumer's bill would exempt some transactions, like those between close relatives.
It would also delay currently mandated cuts in federal aid to states that don't improve the number of mental health records they report to the federal background check system, but reimpose the cuts in coming years. The penalty is designed to prod states to do a better job of reporting the information to the national system, following shootings by people whose information had not been sent to Washington.
Obama had lunch Tuesday with Senate Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who worked with Schumer toward a bipartisan background check deal, said Obama told them that guns and background checks were "a very important topic and he'd like to see what could be practically done."
Before Tuesday's committee action, the NRA emailed a fundraising solicitation to supporters accusing the Obama administration of "exploiting a terrible tragedy to pursue the political agenda they've been after for years — eliminating your constitutional right to keep and bear arms."
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