WASHINGTON — In Congress’ first gun votes since the Newtown, Conn., nightmare, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to toughen federal penalties against illegal firearms purchases, even as senators signaled that a deep partisan divide remained over gun curbs.
The Democratic-led panel voted 11-7 to impose penalties of up to 25 years for people who legally buy firearms but give them to someone else for use in a crime or to people legally barred from acquiring weapons. The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, cast the only GOP vote for the measure.
President Barack Obama urged lawmakers to vote on gun curbs, including the bill approved Thursday, which lawmakers named for Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager who was fatally shot days after performing at Obama’s inauguration.
Congress should consider those bills “because we need to stop the flow of illegal guns to criminals, and because Hadiya’s family and too many other families really do deserve a vote,” he said at an Interior Department ceremony.
The parties’ differences were underscored when senators debated a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Democrats have noted that such firearms have been used in many recent mass shootings.
“The time has come, America, to step up and ban these weapons,” said Feinstein, a lead sponsor of a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later. She added, “How could I stand by and see this carnage go on?”
The response from Republicans was that banning such weapons was unconstitutional, would take firearms from law-abiding citizens, and would have little impact because only a small percentage of crimes involve assault weapons or magazines carrying many rounds of ammunition.
“Are we really going to pass another law that will have zero effect, then pat ourselves on the back for doing something wonderful?” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
The two other bills would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases and provide around $40 million a year for schools to buy security equipment. The committee was expected to vote on those measures and the assault weapons ban on Tuesday.
Thursday’s debate made it clear that despite recent mass slayings, new gun restrictions face a difficult path in a Congress in which the National Rifle Association and conservative voters have a loud voice. Obama proposed a broad package of gun curbs in January, including a call for background checks for nearly all gun purchases and an assault weapons ban.
Solid opposition from Republicans, and likely resistance from moderate Democrats from GOP-leaning states, seems all but certain to doom the assault weapons ban when gun bills reach the full Senate, probably in April. The fate of the other bills is uncertain.
The Senate measures were all crafted since the December slayings of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That massacre plus others in Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and elsewhere, have made guns a top national topic but have not erased many lawmakers’ concerns about protecting gun rights.
Feinstein’s assault weapons prohibition “represents the biggest gun ban proposal in our history,” Grassley said. He argued that firearms bans don’t work and said, “Had this bill been law at the time, Sandy Hook still would have happened” because shooter Adam Lanza used a legally owned gun he took from his mother.
Democrats disagreed, arguing that assault weapons firing large numbers of bullets make killers like Lanza even deadlier.
“The plain, simple, blunt fact is that some if not all of the beautiful children who perished that day in Newtown, along with the great educators who gave their lives trying to save those children, might well be alive today if this ban had been in effect,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The bill boosting federal penalties for illegal gun purchases, whose chief sponsor is the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was one of the least controversial measures that senators are debating. Studies have shown that large numbers of firearms used in crimes are purchased illegally.
Both parties agree that stiffer penalties are needed to stifle gun trafficking and straw purchases, when someone legally buys a gun to give to a criminal or someone else not allowed to have one. Currently, law enforcement officials prosecute the practice with laws that forbid lying on forms for gun purchases, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The bill was approved after Grassley inserted language requiring the Justice Department to take steps aimed at preventing a repeat of the agency’s botched Fast and Furious gun smuggling investigation. Republicans, who also expressed worries that people might be prosecuted for unwittingly giving firearms to someone who ends up using them in a crime, indicated GOP support could grow if some changes are made.
Expanding background checks is the cornerstone of Democrats’ gun proposals. That effort suffered a setback this week when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., dropped efforts to write a compromise with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn’s blessing could have won crucial support from Republicans and moderate Democrats because he is a solid conservative with an A-rating from the National Rifle Association. Schumer and two allies — moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. — said they would continue seeking compromise with other Republicans.
Background checks are now required for sales by the nation’s 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, not for private sales between individuals, like those at gun shows or online.
The school aid measure by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and others would provide $40 million a year in grants for reinforced school doors and other security measures, plus create a new program with existing funds to improve college safety.