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7 Mar, 2013 12:18

Congress makes gun trafficking a federal crime as US arms debate continues

Congress makes gun trafficking a federal crime as US arms debate continues

US Senators have passed a bill making gun trafficking a federal crime. It was the first Congressional vote to curb firearms since the Sandy Hook massacre, and comes after President Obama placed gun control at the top of his agenda.

The bill, which is sponsored by committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, would create penalties of up to 25 years in prison for people who buy guns for others to use in a crime.

The vote was 11 to 7, with Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa the only Republican to support it.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to approve three other gun-control bills before the weekend, thus paving the way for heated debates in the Senate over a proposed ban on assault weapons, as well as calls for expanded background checks on prospective gun owners.

Political observers are almost unanimous in the belief that Congress has no chance of passing an all-out ban on assault weapons, which have been blamed for a rash of shootings, including a recent rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 school children and six adults were indiscriminately killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham defended the right of Americans to use semiautomatic weapons, pointing to post-Katrina New Orleans as an example, said an AR-15 assault rifle would be vital protection against “armed gangs roaming around neighborhoods.”

However, the introduction of more extensive background checks for gun buyers may be one area where Republicans and Democrats can find some compromise.

The debate hinges on whether the government has the right to maintain a directory of private gun sales. Republicans, which make up the majority of the hugely influential National Rifle Association (NRA), are fiercely opposed to handing over such ‘arbitrary powers’ to the federal government.

AFP Photo / Scott Olson

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said it was possible to reach an accord with Democrats on background checks, but there was a chance

"we won't, and that will be a shame,"

Reuters quoted the Republican as saying.

According to the results of a January CBS/New York Times poll, more than 90 per cent of Americans support expanded background checks on prospective gun owners.

Another area of possible agreement between Democrats and Republicans involves bolstering security in schools across the nation.

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has received bipartisan support for her bill that would provide $40 million annually for 10 years in matching federal grants to schools in an effort to beef up security.The measure would empower the US Justice Department to create a National Center for Campus Public Safety.

"Congress spends hundreds of millions a year to protect its members,” the California senator said earlier this week.“It can certainly spend $40 million a year to protect our children."

Democrats control the Judiciary Committee, but they will need 60 votes to pass gun control legislation in the 100-member Senate where they have a 55-45 majority.

The NRA has witnessed a surge in new membership, gaining about half-a-million new members since mid-December, bringing total membership to about 4.5 million over fears of a government crackdown on gun sales.