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Amid questions, U.S. Senate begins hearings on gun control

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 30 Jan 2013 11:59 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Obama's plan to face stiff test on Capitol Hill

* Gun-rights groups oppose much of White House's package

* Improved background checks seen as most likely to win approval

* Advisory: Hearing begins at 10 a.m. EST

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Six weeks after the massacre of 26 people at a Connecticut school ignited new calls to fight gun-related violence, the issue reaches the U.S. Congress on Wednesday amid questions about whether lawmakers will be able to agree on significant legislation.

In hearings that begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee, President Barack Obama and other Democrats are seeking what would be the most robust gun-control package in decades.

Obama's plan includes a ban on military-style "assault" weapons, limits on the capacity of ammunition clips, and more extensive background checks of prospective gun buyers, largely to verify whether they have a history of crime or mental illness.

But Republicans and some pro-gun Democrats envision a much more modest package. Many say that it's unclear whether the Democrat-led Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives both would pass any gun restrictions beyond improved background checks.

"We are trying to weigh things that could make a big difference against things that can pass," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York. "I think background checks is the sweet spot."

That sentiment reflects how the calls for gun control - which were so prominent during the emotional days following the Dec. 14 shootings in Connecticut - will face political reality on Capitol Hill.

Most Republicans and some Democrats in Congress favor gun rights and represent constituents who do as well. The influential gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has called any attempt to restrict weapon sales an assault on Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.

In recent days, some Republican lawmakers have joined Schumer and other Democrats in emphasizing better background checks of gun buyers, rather than Obama's more controversial plan to ban the sale of rapid-firing assault weapons like the one used in the Connecticut shootings.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Judiciary Committee member, said that "we all recognize the need for more effective background checks."

But, Flake said, "people say responsible gun owners should be able to own any type of weapon or (ammunition) clip within reason."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and gun owner, said, "We must be realistic and we will."

Asked what action he expected his panel to eventually propose to the full Senate, Leahy said, "Watch the hearing."

'A SOLID FEAR'

Among those scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing are NRA chief Wayne LaPierre and former astronaut Mark Kelly, who along with his wife, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, recently formed a group to combat gun violence.

Giffords was severely injured in a 2011 shooting that left six people dead and 14 wounded.

The NRA's plan for securing schools has revolved around putting armed guards on campuses. In a statement released Tuesday that he plans to give before the Senate panel on Wednesday, LaPierre also sounded a familiar refrain of gun-rights supporters, calling on better enforcement of existing gun laws rather than new laws.

"We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks for criminal records on gun buyers. But the government estimates that 40 percent of purchasers avoid screening by getting their guns from private sellers, including those at gun shows.

The White House's plan would require screening for all prospective buyers.

The background check provision is generally regarded as the gun-control measure most likely to receive bipartisan support, but even it could face some difficulty.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is on the Judiciary Committee, said, "I don't see any need for any more (gun-control) laws."

"There is a huge crowd out there who believes the more government gets involved, the more freedoms they lose," Hatch said. "That is a solid fear, whether justified or not."

'TOO EARLY TO TELL'

Although Obama's Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in seats in the U.S. Senate, the president's call to revive the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 faces an uphill fight.

"A number of Democrats from red (Republican) states will vote against it," a senior Democratic aide said. "But the vote may give them the cover to back other (gun-control) stuff."

The aide said that such Democrats could end up voting for a White House-backed measure to impose a 10-round limit on ammunition clips.

"The NRA could hurt someone with an ad saying, 'So-and-so voted to take away your guns,'" the aide said. "But an ad saying, 'So-and-so voted to reduce the number of bullets in your clip,' we think, wouldn't have much punch."

Schumer, a veteran of gun-control battles dating back to the 1990s, declined to predict whether Congress would end up imposing a limit on ammunition clips.

"It simply is too early to tell," he said. (Editing by David Lindsey and Lisa Shumaker)

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