WASHINGTON - Gun control legislation the Senate debates next month will include an expansion of federal background checks for firearms buyers, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday in a victory for advocates of gun restrictions.
The announcement underscores that Democrats intend to take an aggressive approach in the effort to broaden the checks, currently required for transactions involving federally licensed firearms dealers but not private sales at gun shows or online.
President Barack Obama and many supporters of curbing guns consider an expansion of the system to private gun sales to be the most effective response lawmakers could take in the wake of December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. The system is designed to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others considered potentially dangerous.
The overall gun measure will also include legislation boosting penalties for illegal gun trafficking and modestly expanding a grant program for school security, said Reid, D-Nev. Its fate remains uncertain, and it will all but certainly need Republican support to survive.
Reid said that during Congress' upcoming two-week break, he hopes senators will strike a bipartisan compromise on broadening background checks. Without a deal, he indicated the gun bill would include a stricter version approved this month by the Senate Judiciary Committee and authored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expanding the system to virtually all private gun transactions with few exceptions.
"I want to be clear: In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks," Reid said in a written statement.
Opponents including the National Rifle Association say background checks are easily sidestepped by criminals and threaten creation of a government file on gun owners - which is illegal under federal law.
"We remain as committed as we have been to opposing gun bans. History shows us that gun bans don't work to reduce crimes," said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman. He declined to comment on a potential compromise but said if the Senate considers Schumer's version of background checks, "We will do whatever we can to defeat it."
The NRA wants Congress to fund more armed guards at schools, step up prosecutions of people who file false gun applications and increase the background check system's access to state records of people with serious mental illness and other problems.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of Reid's announcement, "I don't know how the leader expects members to vote on an ever-changing piece of legislation that has yet to gain bipartisan support."
If not included in the overall gun bill, an expansion of background checks could have been offered as an amendment. But that would have likely meant it would have needed support from 60 of the 100 senators to prevail - a difficult hurdle for Democrats.