An agreement would be a bold first step toward consideration of legislation to limit gun violence in the wake of the mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school in December and comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected this week to begin considering new proposals to limit gun violence.
The talks, led by two Democrats and two Republicans, are expected to earn more GOP support in the coming days and likely enough to move the bill through the Senate, according to senior aides of both parties who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
"These negotiations are challenging, as you'd expect on an issue as complicated as guns," the chief negotiator, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Saturday. "But all of the senators involved are approaching this in good faith. We are all serious about wanting to get something done, and we are going to keep trying."
Resolution of whether to keep records of private sales is key to earning the support of one of the Republicans involved in the talks, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who has a solid A-rating from the influential National Rifle Association and could provide political cover for lawmakers of both parties who are wary of supporting the plan.
Coburn has declined to comment on the talks, saying recently that "I don't negotiate through the press."
Democrats say that keeping records of private sales is necessary to enforce any new law and because current federal law requires licensed firearm dealers to keep records. Records of private sales also would help law enforcement trace back the history of a gun used in a crime, according to Democratic aides. Republicans, however, believe that records of private sales could put an undue burden on gun owners or could be perceived by gun rights advocates as a precursor to a national gun registry.
Coburn and Schumer are joined in their talks by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., while aides in both parties anticipate that Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine could also endorse the plan soon. McCain and Collins have said they generally support legislation expanding background checks, while a Flake spokeswoman said Saturday that he is still reviewing the proposal.
More Republican support is expected in part because the four senators involved in the talks have agreed that any new background check program would exempt private transactions between family members or people who completed a background check in order to obtain a concealed-carry permit, according to aides.
But the four senators are grappling with how to make the process of obtaining a background check as seamless as possible for private dealers while also ensuring that someone keeps a record of the transaction.
Senators are considering whether to establish a new online portal where buyers and sellers could conduct the background check or to allow federally licensed gun retailers like Wal-Mart or Dick's Sporting Goods to charge a small fee to conduct background checks for private dealers, aides said. A record of the sale then could be turned over to a licensed retailer, sent to the gun's manufacturer or kept by the seller.
The background check proposal is considered the most politically viable plan among several introduced in the weeks since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Schumer is facing pressure from the White House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to draft a bill by this week in time for the committee to consider as early as Thursday, when the panel is scheduled to meet to review bills.
Aides expect that the committee will not pass a comprehensive bill, but instead will refer individual proposals to the full Senate. In addition to the background check bill, aides expect the panel to approve a bill that would make gun trafficking a federal crime for the first time. Less certain is the fate of bills limiting the size of ammunition magazines and a ban of military-style assault weapons; those measures face opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
During a town-hall meeting in Arizona last week, McCain bluntly told the mother of a victim of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting that the assault weapons ban will not pass in the House or Senate "because a majority of members of Congress don't support it."
Meanwhile, House Republicans are beginning work on gun legislation even though GOP leaders have said the House would not touch the issue until after the Senate acted.
"We're obviously interested in what the Senate does, but we are hard at work on this issue right now, studying information available," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program airing today.
Goodlatte added that any discussion of new gun laws should come only if the Obama administration steps up enforcement of current laws.
"There are laws on the books right now that prohibit the illegal sale of firearms to people who shouldn't be buying them, people who shouldn't be selling them, and they're just not being enforced as well as they could be," Goodlatte said. "It would save a lot of lives if they were."
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