Coalition of GOP reps may back gun restrictions
BY HEIDI PRZYBYLA, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON -- A coalition of House Republicans is willing to thwart the National Rifle Association's opposition to broadening background checks for U.S. gun purchases. That might be President Obama's best chance for advancing tougher gun regulations this year.
Reps. Patrick Meehan and Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania are among Republicans expressing openness to expanding the background-check system, including mandatory screening of buyers at gun shows.
"We need to consider any option that will keep people safe," Fitzpatrick said in an interview.
"I'm interested in looking at closing the gun-show loophole," Meehan said in an interview. "But I'm also going to be watching where this goes, particularly in the Senate, and how much real effort will be put" forth.
Meehan, of Drexel Hill, represents seven municipalities in the eastern part of Lancaster County.
The loose alliance of Republicans, largely from urban districts in the Northeast and states including Virginia that have been the sites of mass shootings in the past several years, also is focused on regulations involving mental health reporting of firearms buyers and gun trafficking as first steps in combating gun violence.
Expansion of background checks for gun purchasers is gaining bipartisan support in Congress and among the public while restrictions on weapons may confront stiffer opposition in Congress. A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 7 found more than 9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks.
The coalition of House Republicans is probably no larger than 40, according to advocates of tighter gun restrictions, though it might grow once such measures advance in Congress.
House Democrats last week proposed background checks for almost all gun buyers and requiring states to include more information in the national criminal background database. The measures mirror Obama's proposal in response to the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
The NRA, which doesn't support broadening background-check laws, is a formidable lobbying force on Capitol Hill.
The Fairfax, Va.-based NRA says it represents more than 4 million members. The group, which describes itself as the foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, reported revenue of $227.8 million in 2010, including $100.5 million from membership dues, according to its tax return.
The last major gun legislation Congress passed was the 1994 assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. With Republicans now in control of the House, Democrats who support tightening firearms regulations will need votes across party lines.
"Right now, things that are more likely are things like, honestly, making the schools themselves more secure, the NRA approach, mental-health type things," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican deputy whip.
The NRA once supported widening background checks.
During the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, an ad aired showing Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive officer, testifying before Congress in May 1999 in favor of ending the exception to federal background checks for private gun shows.
It is "reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show," LaPierre said in the sound bite.
The ad was sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group whose co-chairman is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It supports stronger gun restrictions, including background checks for all gun purchases and limits on owning assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Since LaPierre testified, the NRA has changed its stance, maintaining that background checks are ineffective because criminals will find a way around them while law-abiding citizens will be burdened by excessive bureaucracy and waiting periods.
At a Jan. 31 breakfast in Washington with reporters, NRA President David Keene expressed skepticism that expanding the system to sales at gun shows would cut down on violence. He showed more concern about mandatory background checks on private transfers of guns between family members and neighbors and any attempt to create a federal registry of gun owners.
In a Feb. 7 news conference outlining House Democratic recommendations, Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, said a mandatory system could exempt individuals transferring guns to family members and temporary loans for sporting purposes.
Thompson, who headed a House Democratic panel on curtailing gun violence, emphasized background checks in his closing remarks.
"If you're against background checks, you're for letting people who shouldn't have guns have guns," he said. "There's no other way to explain that."
New York Rep. Peter King is another Republican who has said he supports universal background checks.
He said he plans this week to reintroduce two measures he has sponsored in previous years, including gun background checks on people on terrorist watch lists.
Even some Republicans from pro-gun-rights states are lining up in favor of expanded background checks.
"Universal background checks possibly could be all right, depending upon how they go about it," said Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican. "If they're going to create a whole big giant bureaucracy with all kinds of restrictions and limitations and delays, that would be a different thing."
The NRA supports strengthening some aspects of the nation's background-check system, notably adding more records of the mentally ill into a federal database on purchasers. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, echoes that position.
Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania recently introduced a bill to require states to report more individuals committed for mental health evaluations to the FBI's background check database.
Last week Meehan and Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, stood on stage with Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Elijah Cummings of Maryland to introduce a bill making gun trafficking a federal crime.
In an interview, Rigell said he may end up supporting expanded background checks.
"Do you think a person who is a criminal should be able to buy a gun on the street? No. I'm working through this right now," he said. "We start out on what we agree on."
As a result of an exception that doesn't require background checks for private sales of guns and at gun shows, about 6.6 million guns are sold each year without federal checks, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to close the gap. In those locations, fewer women are shot to death by their partners, fewer firearms are used in suicides and evidence shows less illegal gun trafficking, according to studies including a 2009 Johns Hopkins University analysis of gun trafficking in 53 U.S. cities.
Interstate gun trafficking was 48 percent lower where private handgun sales require a background check, it found.
Before the first major U.S. school mass shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Robyn Anderson, a friend of shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, bought the shotguns from unlicensed sellers at a 1998 gun show. The state subsequently ended the gun show exception there.
The results of the expanded background checks law passed in November 2000 have been dramatic, said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat whose son was murdered with a gun in 2005.
Colorado was the 17th-largest source of guns found at crime scenes in other states. Within a year of the new law, it fell to 27th, and by 2009 it ranked 32nd, Fields said last week in Denver.
"That's real results," she said.
Meanwhile, victims' advocates and newly formed outside spending groups are putting pressure on Congress to pass gun-control measures including expanded background checks.
Last year Mayor Bloomberg formed a super-political action committee that recently spent more than $600,000 for 12 days of television ads against former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat, for her past support from the NRA. Halvorson is running in a Feb. 26 special election primary in Illinois for the House seat of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was shot at a constituent event in which six people were killed, formed with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, a gun-control advocacy group called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Steve Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer who donated $1 million to help start the group, said its goal is to counteract political donations of the NRA, which invested about $20 million in last year's federal elections.
Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, a group that typically supports Democrats' policies, warned for "members who vote the wrong way on these issues, I think, there could be some significant political consequences."