Bipartisan bill aims to close gun loophole

A handgun is displayed during a convention in Reno, Nevada on Jan. 29, 2011. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Reuters)
A handgun is displayed during a convention in Reno, Nevada on Jan. 29, 2011.

A bipartisan group of legislators reintroduced a gun control bill Wednesday, nearly two years after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a measure that would have closed the federal loophole in the background checks system.

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The four Republicans and four Democrats who are co-sponsoring the measure are seeking to expand background checks to prevent criminals and people with severe mental illnesses from buying guns during every commercial sale. A loophole in the federal system currently allows people to buy firearms sold online and at gun shows without first passing a background check.

Republican Rep. Peter King of New York and Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California co-authored the legislation.

The Brady Bill, which requires background checks on handgun purchases, was signed into law on Nov. 20, 1993 after a seven-year battle to garner support. Jim Brady, the press secretary and assistant to former President Ronald Reagan, was shot and seriously wounded in 1981 during an assassination attempt on the commander-in-chief. Brady and his wife, Sarah, joined the fight for stricter gun laws, and he became the namesake for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence when the organization renamed itself from the Handgun Control, Inc. in 2001.

The federal background checks system currently in place stops 170 felons, 50 domestic abusers and 20 fugitives from buying a gun each day, Thompson said. But the weak point in the legislation allows for those individuals to purchase a weapon online or at a gun show after they are denied a firearm from a licensed dealer.

The same bill put forward by Reps. King and Thompson was introduced in the previous session of Congress. It had earned 188 co-sponsors and 90% of support from the American public. But Republican leadership blocked the bill. Its bipartisan companion bill in the Senate, co-authored by Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, failed with 54 votes in April 2013. Just four months earlier, 26 people -- 20 of them first graders -- were killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

This time, the lawmakers are facing a wider margin of Republican control in the House, and a GOP majority in the Senate.

"If this bill violated the Second Amendment, my name wouldn’t be on it,” Thompson, who chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said Wednesday during a press conference to introduce the legislation. Background checks, he added, "are our first line of defense against dangerous people."

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The measure was crafted to provide appropriate exceptions, including the transfer of guns between family members, friends and hunting partners, said Rep. Bob Dold, a Republican from Illinois and co-sponsor of the bill.

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a gunman outside of a Tucson supermarket in 2011, briefly addressed reporters on Wednesday. "I've seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together, be responsible Democrats, Republicans, everyone," she said. "We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight."

Where Congress has failed to address gun legislation, however, state and local leaders have taken matters into their own hands. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C. have extended the background checks requirement beyond federal law to at least some private sales.

The only piece of gun legislation agreed on by both the House and Senate in 2014 was the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last December. The measure calls for $73 million to help prevent felons, fugitives and domestic abusers from buying guns. It also includes $75 million for a national school safety initiative.