Gun Trafficking Bill Passes Senate Committee, Heads To Full Senate Vote

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy holds a hearing on gun control at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washin
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy holds a hearing on gun control at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2013. Republicans teamed up with Democrats to introduce gun control legislation in the US Senate that aims to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. It is one of a handful of new bills, including a beefed-up ban on assault weapons, being considered in the wake of the December tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut that saw a gunman kill 20 children and six adults. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill on Thursday that would crack down on gun trafficking, a key step forward for a package of gun bills being pushed by President Barack Obama.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 passed the committee 11 to 7, with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as the lone Republican voting for it. The bill, which has GOP cosponsors, including Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Susan Collins (Maine), would for the first time explicitly make it illegal to buy weapons for someone else who is barred from owning weapons. These "straw purchases" are believed to be the leading source of guns trafficked to criminals.

"The practice of straw purchasing firearms is undertaken for one reason: to get a gun into the hands of someone who is prohibited from having one," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the committee, said during the meeting. "We know that many guns used in criminal activities are acquired through straw purchases. We need a meaningful solution to this serious problem."

The legislation is one of four bills at the heart of Obama's gun violence package, unveiled in the wake of the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn. The committee was set to take up all four bills on Thursday morning, but only got through the trafficking bill. Leahy said the committee will come back later Thursday or on Friday to vote on the other three measures, which would ban assault weapons, impose universal background checks and beef up school safety.

All four of the bills are expected to pass the committee, but they are likely to meet varying fates once they hit the Senate floor. The assault weapons ban faces the steepest climb ahead, with zero Republican support for the measure.

Ahead of the committee vote on the trafficking bill, some Republicans laid out their cases against it. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called the bill "a solution in search of a problem," saying the Department of Justice needs to do a better job of enforcing current gun laws instead of lawmakers making new laws. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was "troubled" by the size of the penalty that would be imposed on gun traffickers: up to 25 years in prison.

Leahy, who is also the sponsor of the trafficking bill, didn't buy that argument.

"Are you saying I’m being too tough?" he said, to no real response.

White House press secretary Jay Carney later called the committee's action "an important bipartisan step" at the start of his daily briefing.

"The administration and the law enforcement community have long identifed the need for legislation imposing tough penalties on gun traffickers and straw purchasers who funnel guns to dangerous criminals, and the president is pleased that Congress is taking steps to act," Carney read aloud from a statement. "We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this and the other important pieces of legislation that are part of the president's comprehensive plan."

This article was updated with comments from Jay Carney.

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