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Gun legislation getting holstered on Capitol Hill

Senate Judiciary Committee members meet on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2013
Senate Judiciary Committee members (L-R) US Senators Orrin Hatch, ranking member Chuck Grassley, Chairman Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2013. The committee considered four pieces of gun control legislatio

Three months after Newtown, the prospects for President Barack Obama's ambitious gun control measures have dimmed, as hopes for expanded background checks clash with stubborn political realities.

Advocates were keenly anticipating that sweeping federal gun laws -- the first in nearly 20 years -- could make it to the president's desk, but the ankle weights of congressional hesitation have brought such prospects down to Earth.

"It's been a very hard road," sighed Senator Dianne Feinstein, referring to her revised ban on assault weapons, one of four pieces of legislation considered Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The difficulties extend beyond her ban, which gained traction in the weeks after a gunman using a semi-automatic rifle massacred 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but which many lawmakers have said has little chance of passing Congress.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks about assault weapon bans during a news conference, January 24, 2013, Capitol Hill
US Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks next to a display of assault weapons during a news conference on January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill.

The week was marked by a breakdown in talks over the linchpin in Obama's gun reforms: legislation that would require background checks on all gun purchases, including those by private sellers at gun shows.

Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who is shepherding the legislation, could not agree with Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on what to do with records from private gun sales.

"The problem is that you have two polar opposites. You have the gun control group and the NRA," Coburn told reporters, referring to the powerful National Rifle Association pro-gun lobby group opposed to nearly all gun control measures.

"Our deal is to find the sweet spot in the middle that makes sense," he added, insisting he was "still hopeful" of passing a bill that expands background checks.

The glacial movement illustrates the sensitivity of a debate that transcends politics in a country where the US Supreme Court as recently as 2008 reiterated the inalienable right of Americans to own guns to defend themselves.

Many Democrats coalesced around universal background checks as the logical next big step, citing overwhelming public support -- as high as 94 percent in North Dakota, whose two Republican senators have "A" ratings from the NRA.

An assault rifle on display during a gun control news conference, January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill
A Colt AR-15 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle on display during a gun control news conference, January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill. Gun legislation has been slow on Capitol Hill.

Yet several Republicans chafe at the idea of such new restrictions, even as they acknowledge the current background check system is broken.

Senators did make some progress at the Judiciary meeting, voting to approve a bill that would make firearm trafficking a federal crime and impose stiff penalties on "straw purchasers" who buy guns for people who are prohibited from owning them.

Obama urged the Senate and House to pass the anti-trafficking measure, which is now lined up as the first gun bill likely to push through Congress.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley backed it, but fellow conservative Senator John Cornyn hinted at potential problems and dismissed the bill as "a solution in search of a problem."

Gun control groups were extremely vocal in the days after Newtown, as they demanded White House action.

But they have quieted their rage -- at the urging of the White House, in exchange for a greater say in the discussion, according to the Politico news website, which quoted sources involved in talks with administration officials.

US Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at a gun control hearing on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2013
US Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at a gun control hearing on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2013. Gun control legislation has been slow moving on Capital Hill.

"This is a process. Nothing is going to happen overnight," Violence Policy Center legislative director Kristen Rand told AFP.

"Over the long run, the will to deal with the gun violence problem has the momentum."

But any such thrust appeared unlikely to salvage Feinstein's assault weapons ban, a tougher version of her previous ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004.

Studies have been inconclusive about its effect on gun violence, and Grassley accused Feinstein of trying to "double down on a failed strategy."

"All of us want to take effective action to prevent future tragedies. But we have different, deeply held approaches to do so," Grassley said.

In arguing that restricting gun sales is not the solution, the Iowa Republican pointed to the steadily declining US crime rate over the past 20 years, despite the explosion in the number of weapons in circulation: more than 300 million in a nation of 315 million people.

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