Cummings to push bipartisan gun control bill

Proposal would stiffen penalties for straw purchases

February 04, 2013|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Responding to gun control loopholes that have proved vexing for police in Maryland and elsewhere, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings will introduce bipartisan legislation Tuesday to impose tougher penalties for people who traffic guns across state borders or buy them for someone else.

The legislation, which has support from at least two Republican lawmakers, would make firearms trafficking a federal crime and would stiffen penalties for so-called straw purchases, in which people buy weapons — sometimes in large volume — for another person who would not clear a federal background check.

Cummings' proposal comes as congressional Democrats and the Obama administration have sought sweeping changes to federal law — including an assault weapons ban, smaller magazines and more extensive background checks — following the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 dead.

The bill appears to be the first concrete proposal in the GOP-led House of Representatives to secure bipartisan support. It mirrors a bipartisan bill unveiled last week in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which is likely to take the lead in Congress this year on gun control.

"Law enforcement is concerned that folks now can go out there and purchase a gun for someone else who is already prohibited from having a gun," said Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who declined to discuss the bill's specifics until it is introduced. "Those guns then end up in the wrong hands."

President Barack Obama spoke in Minneapolis on Monday to press the case for his broader gun control plan, which he unveiled in January. Many lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, have voiced skepticism over some of its provisions.

"We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something," Obama said.

Though it appears the much narrower measure Cummings and three other lawmakers will announce Tuesday would increase penalties only for those who have committed a crime, the National Rifle Association said it will oppose the idea because it doesn't address what the group sees as an underlying cause of gun violence.

"The issue here is there are not prosecutions," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said in response to the broad outline of the Cummings proposal. "Making stiffer penalties is not going to mean a thing unless [offenders] are arrested and prosecuted."

Gun control groups have argued that part of the reason straw purchasers are not prosecuted is that the crime amounts to a misdemeanor in most cases, despite the effort it takes to identify the illegal transactions. Overtaxed prosecutors are directing limited resources elsewhere, those advocates say.

Upping the penalty, they argue, could change that.

"It would seem that a piece of low-hanging fruit would be to increase penalties for individuals who are illegally running guns," said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Cummings said he has heard from police in Maryland who are concerned about gun trafficking, especially since neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania have less stringent gun laws. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and Washington Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier are scheduled to attend an event on Capitol Hill Tuesday in support of the bill.

In 2011, 1,707 guns from other states were recovered by law enforcement agencies in Maryland, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By comparison, 681 guns from Maryland were recovered in other states.

Pennsylvania was the source of 265 of the guns recovered in Maryland, 418 were traced back to Virginia and 146 originated in West Virginia, the data show.

Those states all get poorer rankings than Maryland on the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence's "score cards" of states. A spokeswoman said the Brady campaign supports the anti-trafficking bill.

Cummings said it is coincidence that the two Republican sponsors on the legislation come from those neighboring states — Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, a former federal prosecutor, and Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia.

"This common-sense legislation has bipartisan support," Rigell said in statement, "and when we find common ground, we must embrace it, celebrate it, and act on it."

Cummings has personally been affected by gun violence. His 20-year-old nephew, a student at Old Dominion University, was shot and killed in 2011. Cummings has repeatedly appealed for anyone with information in the killing to come forward, but the case remains unsolved.

"When I think about my career, if I were able to accomplish this, I would consider it a major, major accomplishment in my over 30 years of time in public service," Cummings said.

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