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Senate panel backs tougher rules on illegal gun deals

Grassley is lone GOP member to vote for bill

WASHINGTON — In Congress’ first gun votes since the Newtown, Conn., shooting rampage, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to toughen federal penalties against illegal firearms purchases, even as senators signaled that a deep partisan divide remained over gun curbs.

The Democratic-led panel voted 11-7 to impose penalties of up to 25 years for people who legally buy firearms but give them to someone else for use in a crime or to people legally barred from acquiring weapons. The panel’s top Republican, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, cast the only GOP vote for the measure.

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President Obama urged lawmakers to vote on gun curbs, including the bill approved Thursday, which lawmakers named for Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager who was fatally shot days after performing at Obama’s inauguration.

The parties’ differences were underscored when senators debated a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Democrats have noted that such firearms have been used in many recent mass shootings.

‘‘The time has come, America, to step up and ban these weapons,’’ said Feinstein, a California Democrat and a lead sponsor of a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later.

The response from Republicans was that banning such weapons was unconstitutional, would take firearms from law-abiding citizens, and would have little impact because only a small percentage of crimes involve assault weapons or magazines carrying many rounds of ammunition.

The two other bills would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases and provide around $40 million a year for schools to buy security equipment.

Thursday’s debate made it clear that despite recent mass slayings, new gun restrictions face a difficult path in a Congress in which the National Rifle Association and conservative voters have a loud voice. Obama proposed a broad package of gun curbs in January, including a call for background checks for nearly all gun purchases and an assault weapons ban.

Solid opposition from Republicans, and likely resistance from moderate Democrats from GOP-leaning states, seems all but certain to doom the assault weapons ban when gun bills reach the full Senate, probably in April.

The fate of the other bills is uncertain.

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