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Senate panel advances bill beefing up gun trafficking laws

A key Senate committee on Thursday advanced an element of President Barack Obama’s broad gun control initiative, approving a measure aimed at combating gun trafficking and straw purchasing in a bipartisan vote.

One Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, joined the committee’s 10 Democrats to approve the bill in a 11-7 vote, sending the legislation to the full Senate for consideration.

"We know that many guns used in criminal activities are acquired through straw purchases," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman and author of the bill. "We need a meaningful solution to these serious problems.

The legislation would make it a crime to sell a gun to a person who intends to pass it on to someone who couldn't pass a federal background check, and it would make gun trafficking a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

The bill has bipartisan support. In addition to Grassley's support in committee, the bill has two Republican co-sponsors, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Still, several committee Republicans argued against the gun trafficking bill, saying it represented an ill-considered attempt to demonstrate that senators were taking some sort of quick action to address gun violence after the deadly December shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

"In our haste, to try to show that we're doing something, we end up creating that unintended consequence," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he thought some penalties for straw sellers were too stiff, sometimes exceeding the sentences applied to those who actually commit a crime with a gun.

The Judiciary Committee is discussing and voting on four gun bills: an assault weapons ban, a school safety measure, a universal background check bill and the gun trafficking law. It's expected that Republicans will aggressively challenge the assault weapons ban during the committee discussion.

But that law has little chance of passing the full Senate. Instead, the focus is on requiring a background check for anyone buying a gun. Negotiations on that law stalled this week, with Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin in search of a new pro-gun Republican sponsor after they couldn't reach an agreement with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

For the committee hearing, Schumer has submitted a Democratic version of the background check bill. Thursday's committee debate and votes will have little impact on any final product -- senators are continuing to negotiate behind closed doors. Democratic leadership aides say they expect the full Senate to debate gun laws on the floor in early April.