WASHINGTON - The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposal to make gun trafficking a federal crime during an abridged morning session Thursday, also beginning debate of a bill to ban assault weapons.
Legislation set forth by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the committee, aims to ban so-called “straw buyers” who purchase weapons for those who legally cannot. The measure passed 11-7, with Republicans contending that the proposal’s language is overly broad and its penalties too stiff.
“In general, I support the concept of what you’re doing,” Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, told Leahy. “I’m a bit troubled by the size of the penalty.”
“Are you saying I’m being too rough?” Leahy asked of his bill, which would punish straw buyers with up to 15 years in prison.
“Maybe,” Sessions said.
Arguments during the committee markup - which could open legislation to debate on the Senate floor - fell along familiar partisan lines. Democrats used 2012 mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., as examples of the necessity of additional regulations. Their Republican colleagues, meanwhile, deflected many of the claims, instead focusing on enforcing existing laws more efficiently and bolstering mental health protections.
The committee meeting was abruptly adjourned before noon, before votes could be cast on proposals for an assault weapons ban, a more comprehensive background check system and increased security measures at schools. Debate on assault weapons - perhaps the most controversial of the measures to be proposed Tuesday - underscored the ideological distance between both parties on gun control.
Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposal would outlaw 157 types of weapons and limit magazines to 10 bullets or less. The California Democrat said the bill aims to “dry up the supply” of such weapons available to criminals, adding, “”these assault weapons have a great attraction for grievance killers.”
“We’ve seen it in universities, we’ve seen them in elementary schools and now we’ve seen them used against first graders,” Feinstein said. “Members, this is not going to stop.”
Though the meeting was adjourned before her bill garnered a vote, Republicans appeared unanimously opposed to the proposal. A number of GOP senators argued that an assault weapons ban would be unconstitutional. Senator Lindsey Graham, who notes repeatedly in gun-control discussions that he owns an AR-15, said the bill - like its 1994 predecessor that expired a decade later - “didn’t work before. It won’t work now.”
“Sometimes, a law-abiding citizen - at least in my view - may need more than 10 bullets” to defend himself, Graham said.
Other Republicans criticized the ban as a “one size fits all” solution.
“The overwhelming majority of those [assault] weapons are possessed by law-abiding people,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah said. “This law would do more harm than good.”
Leahy said he’s unsure whether the committee will reconvene Thursday or Friday to debate the remaining proposals. He held up a copy of a USA Today story at the outset of the hearing, citing its report that gun violence costs the government $12 billion annually in court proceedings, insurance costs and hospitalizations.
“We got to do what we can in this committee to mitigate these unnecessary costs,” Leahy said.
All four measures were expected to pass the committee. But their fate when the full Senate considers them, probably in April, is less certain. The trafficking measure by Leahy, D-Vt., was thought to have the best prospects, while the assault weapons ban by Feinstein seemed to have the slimmest chance.
Democrats led by Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., had hoped to reach a bipartisan deal on expanding federal background checks with conservative Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But on Wednesday, Democrats set aside their efforts to win over Coburn after weeks of talks failed to resolve a dispute over requiring that records of private sales be retained.
Their inability to craft a deal with Coburn was a blow to Democrats because of his solid conservative credentials and ‘‘A'’ rating with the NRA. His support could have meant backing from other Senate Republicans and even moderate Democrats, including several facing 2014 re-election campaigns in GOP-leaning states.
In addition, supporters of curbing guns say the Senate will have to approve legislation with strong bipartisan support to boost their chances of success in the GOP-led House. Republican leaders there have said they won’t act until the Senate produces legislation.
Democrats said they would negotiate with other Republicans and would not give up on eventually cutting a deal with Coburn.
‘‘We’re confident plenty of senators already understand that this is the sweet spot where good policy and politics meet,’’ said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-curb group led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino whose membership includes more than 800 mayors.
Expanding the checks is the cornerstone and most popular part of Obama’s effort to rein gun violence. They are now mandated only for sales by the nation’s 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, not for private sales between individuals, like those at gun shows or online.
An Associated-Press-GfK poll in January found 84 percent favored requiring background checks at gun shows. Other proposed gun curbs were supported by just over half the public.David Uberti can be reached at David.Uberti@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Material from the Associated Press.