As gun control debate flares, Leahy keeps powder dry on some issues
WASHINGTON — As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to vote on gun control legislation in the coming weeks, one of Capitol Hill’s key players on the issue — Democrat Patrick Leahy — already has staked out some positions in the debate.
But the chairman of the committee is awaiting more information before he makes up his mind on several key questions.
For instance, Leahy has filed legislation to make so-called “straw purchases” illegal, and to provide law enforcement with the tools necessary to prosecute these transactions. A straw purchase involves one individual buying a gun on behalf of a second individual who otherwise wouldn’t be able to obtain it due to legal restrictions.
“I hope we can pull these straw purchases back, where somebody comes in and buys 100 weapons or so and it goes to a drug cartel or it goes to a crime gang,” Leahy said in an interview Thursday.
However, the senator is holding off on passing judgment on some of the more controversial ideas that have been discussed, such as a ban on assault weapons. “I’m trying not to pre-judge anything that might be introduced, because all of it will come to the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Leahy said.
As last fall’s killings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school has moved gun control front-and-center on Congress’ agenda, Leahy predicted that some type of legislation would be enacted this year. But he acknowledged that the specific provisions to be included in such a measure remain unclear.
“Something can be passed, but it all depends on what is in the thing,” he said. “And, of course, we have to work within the context of the Second Amendment and also the Heller case that came out of the District of Columbia,” he added, referring to a 2008 Supreme Court case in which the high court struck down a D.C. ban on handguns as unconstitutional.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently introduced legislation that would ban assault weapons, but the Senate Judiciary Committee is still in the early stages of discussing the topic. It has scheduled a hearing on Feinstein’s bill for Feb. 27, after Congress returns from a weeklong President’s Day recess.
While Congress previously enacted an assault weapons ban in 1994 — it expired 10 years later and was not renewed — Leahy noted that there are currently a half-dozen definitions of an assault weapon currently being floated.
But he did say that the Judiciary Committee will bring the matter to a vote once such issues have been resolved, and added that he was in accord with the sentiments expressed in President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week. During the speech, the president declared that the victims of gun violence and the communities affected by it “deserve a vote” on stricter gun control measures.
When asked what he thought of Obama’s speech, Leahy said that he agreed with it.
“Either vote yes or vote no,” said Leahy. “Have the courage to vote.”
He added, “We’ll also vote on a real effort to close the so-called gun show loophole, so that anybody who buys a weapon has to have a background check, and it will be a real background check with real teeth if you lie.”
Last month, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing of the year on gun control, Leahy observed that he agreed with gun store owners he knows in Vermont — who, he said, don’t understand why gun show sellers are not forced to follow the same background check rules that they must comply with.
During that hearing and others that followed, Leahy said he has been trying to listen to individuals from across the spectrum on the gun control issue.
Asked in the interview Thursday what he has taken away from the hearing so far, he responded: “I think the fact that many feel very, very strongly that something should be done. We heard that when Gabby Giffords and her husband testified.”
He was referring to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who suffered a severe head wound when a gunman opened fire on her and others as she met with constituents in a Tucson supermarket in January 2011.
Leahy said similar sentiments have been expressed to him by police officers who have struggled to combat the firepower they encounter from criminal elements.
“Police officers feel more and more that they’re in situations where they’re being gravely outgunned and that in itself makes all of us less safe when our law enforcement (is) at a disadvantage,” Leahy said.
Edward Donga is affiliated with Boston University Journalism Program.MORE IN Central Vermont
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