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Senators aim to close gun-show loophole

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Gun-control advocates have been largely stymied in their efforts to get significant new firearms restrictions, but they still believe they can achieve one goal: closing a loophole that allows sales at gun shows without background checks on purchasers.

This week, two Senate Democrats introduced legislation to close that loophole in federal law, despite a recent failure in Virginia -- where a gunman killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in April -- to change a similar state law.

Accompanied by family members of some of the Virginia Tech victims, along with gun-control advocate Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Jack Reed of Rhode Island unveiled their proposal at a news conference Wednesday.

"It defies common sense that a loophole in federal law lets unlicensed dealers sell firearms at gun shows without running a background check on the buyer," Lautenberg said. "Our legislation would require background checks for every gun purchased at every gun show across America. Without this change in the law, felons, fugitives and severely mentally ill people will continue to be able to buy guns -- no questions asked."

Under current law, only federally licensed gun dealers, such as those at sporting-goods retailers or gun shops, are required to conduct background checks. That doesn't cover informal situations, such as gun shows at an outdoor venue or in a facility rented for the weekend.

The senators pointed to the 1999 killings at Columbine High School outside Denver as an example. Three of the four weapons used at Columbine were purchased at gun shows, and the young woman who bought them for the two shooters -- because she was 18 and they were 17 -- has said she would not have done so had a background check been required.

Weeks after the Columbine shooting, Lautenberg introduced a proposal to close the gun-show loophole in federal law. It passed the Senate on Vice President Al Gore's tiebreaking vote, but did not survive the House.

This time Lautenberg and Reed are using the Virginia Tech shootings to build their case, though gunman Seung-hui Cho bought his guns from a licensed dealer and underwent a background check.

Mentally ill individuals are not permitted to buy firearms from licensed dealers; Cho had been ruled a danger to himself in a 2005 court commitment hearing, but Virginia never forwarded that finding to the national screening database.

Early last month, President Bush signed legislation to expand the federal database by requiring states to provide such information. Gun-control advocates, however, argue that ensuring the names are in the federal database means little, since someone on that list can still purchase firearms at a gun show without a background check.

Only 15 states, including California, require background checks for sales at gun shows. That's why federal law needs to be changed, according to Lautenberg and Reed.

"This legislation does not aim to prohibit people who are eligible to purchase a firearm," Reed said. "This legislation aims to stop firearm purchases by prohibited gun buyers such as convicted felons, fugitives, those found mentally incompetent and juveniles, like those at Columbine High School.

"What we're about, starting today, is avoiding another situation where someone who is ineligible to buy a weapon does so at a gun show."

Between Columbine and Virginia Tech, the gun-show issue largely faded from the legislative agenda.

Republicansfrequently referred to efforts to close the loophole as an infringement of a 2nd Amendment right to privately sell guns. Many Democrats blamed Gore's struggles in rural states in the 2000 presidential election on his support for gun control, and have backed away from gun issues for fear of a political backlash.

"It's simply a drive to make it impossible to have guns without being regulated by the government," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. "From what the government itself has found, shows are seldom a place where guns get into the hands of criminals. Gun shows are a freedom, and they're trying to take away another freedom."

It's a particularly difficult issue in Virginia, one of the nation's most politically mixed states.

And even with the Virginia Tech shootings fresh in state legislators' minds, such a measure wasn't successful there: On Jan. 18, in a 13-9 party-line vote, the Republican majority on the House of Delegates' Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee buried two bills that would have required sellers at gun shows to check buyers' criminal histories.

Del. David W. Marsden, a Democrat who crafted one of the two House bills, used as an example a vendor at a gun show -- "essentially, someone like you or me that can go sell Grandpa's shotgun" -- and said Republicans and Democrats would approach that sale from different positions.

"They see that issue as a private transaction, like giving it to a cousin in your home," he said.

"But we no longer see it as a private sale in the circumstance of a gun show, because it's a public facility. Whether they rented a hall, rented a field or whatever, it's a public facility."

Despite support from Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and Virginia Tech victims' families, a similar bill failed even in the Democratic-controlled state Senate -- meaning the issue is effectively off the table for 2008.

"All we're trying to do is make sure the existing state law is applied to a gun show," said Marsden, who represents suburban Fairfax County, near the nation's capital. "But the problem in Virginia is that rural and Republican Party interests are still predominant."

ben.dubose@latimes.com

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