WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved Democratic-sponsored measures to expand the nation’s gun background check system and a federal program that funds school security plans, action that comes as most Americans continue to support stricter gun laws, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The 18-member committee referred the background check bill to the full Senate on a party-line vote of 10 to 8 and later passed the school security bill 14 to 4. Scheduling conflicts with other committee hearings postponed a showdown until Thursday on the most controversial proposal under consideration, a ban on hundreds of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
The background check bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., lacks bipartisan support and is considered a placeholder as the New York lawmaker continues negotiating with moderate Republicans and Democrats on an alternative bill that would exempt firearm transfers between family members and possibly close friends.
“This isn’t going to be a perfect bill, but it will sure reduce crimes,” Schumer said before the committee voted.
Republicans united in opposition, saying the bill might overburden gun owners and prompt Democrats to propose stricter gun measures, including confiscation of weapons, if the bill fails to curb gun violence.
“Why would anyone think that criminals would comply with broader background check requirements?” asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa. “They would be drawn more to straw purchases. … The effectiveness of this bill is highly questionable.”
In response, Schumer blasted Grassley for suggesting that the new bill would not deter criminals from breaking the law — saying that the GOP never makes such arguments when the Senate debates new laws to curb terrorism or financial crimes.
“We never see the argument, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have laws, because the bad people will get around it anyway.’ Only on this issue — and it makes no sense, with due respect,” he said.
Expanding the nation’s background check system earned the broadest public support in the new Post-ABC poll. Nine in 10 Americans support requiring background checks on people buying firearms at gun shows. Eight in 10 strongly support closing the “gun show loophole” — a six-point jump from a similar poll in January. New background check legislation has strong support from gun-owning and non-gun-owning households, the poll found.
The committee also quickly approved a bill by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to reauthorize and expand a Justice Department program that would provide $40 million in grants to eligible school districts for security plans. The original bill proposed expanding the program to $100 million, but it was scaled back in order to earn more GOP support, according to aides familiar with negotiations.
The Boxer-Collins bill doesn’t mandate posting armed guards at schools, but eligible school districts could use some of the federal money to pay for armed guards. Public support for armed guards at the nation’s schools is slightly less now (50 percent) than in a similar Post-ABC poll from January (55 percent). Support for armed guards in the most recent poll dropped by 10 points among gun-owning households while non-gun households remain evenly split.
“The Secure our Schools Grant Program helps state and local governments work in close partnership to improve school safety, protect our students, and create a safe learning environment,” said Collins. “It is vital that community law enforcement professionals and agencies are adequately supported in their mission to keep our schools and communities safe.”
The bipartisan bill — the School and Campus Safety Enhancements Act — would provide communities and schools with resources to install classroom locks, lighting, fencing, reinforced doors and other deterrent measures. The measure would also help schools conduct security assessments and training for students, teachers and administrators, and allow schools to better coordinate with local law enforcement.
The measure would authorize $40 million annually for these safety improvements. Local communities and schools would apply for the Secure Our Schools grants through the Justice Department, with federal resources matched 50-50 by local governments.
The Boxer-Collins bill would also create a Department of Justice and Department of Education joint task force to develop advisory guidelines to help K-12 schools keep children safe. The bill also includes a provision authored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to establish a National Center for Campus Public Safety to help colleges and universities protect students.
The Post-ABC poll also found wide support for making illegal gun sales a federal crime. The Judiciary Committee last week approved what would make purchasing a firearm for someone else a federal crime. Federal penalties for illegal sales earned support from large majorities.
The poll also found that the nation is evenly split between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over whom it trusts to handle the issue of gun control. Obama is trusted by 42 percent of Americans, compared with 41 percent who trust Republicans. Demonstrating a continued divide, those in gun-owning households trust Republicans over Obama by more than two to one (56 percent to 26 percent), while those in non-gun-owning households are nearly a mirror image (58 percent trust Obama; 26 percent trust Republicans).
Separately, a new poll by the Pew Research Center released Tuesday found that gun owners now cite protection as their top reason for owning firearms. Nearly half of gun owners said that protection was the main reason for owning a gun, followed by 32 percent of people who said they own firearms for hunting. That’s a flip from a 1999 Post-ABC poll, when nearly twice as many cited hunting as their reason for owning a gun.
Gun owners overwhelmingly say that owning a gun makes them feel safer and that it’s something they enjoy (79 and 78 percent). Almost six in 10 people with no gun in their home say guns would make them uncomfortable, with many offering specific concerns about accidents with children or the safety of guns in general.
Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.