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Bipartisan Group Of Senators Aim To Improve Criminal Background Check System


There was a sign today of a possible move in Congress responding to a recent mass shooting. A bipartisan group of senators proposed a bill to improve the existing system of criminal background checks before buying guns. This stems from a situation exposed by the man who shot and killed 26 people at a church in Texas. He should have been blocked from purchasing a gun, but his conviction in a military court over domestic assault was not in the proper federal database.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now with how lawmakers want to solve this problem. So Susan, what would this new bill do?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The goal of this bill isn't really about writing new gun laws. It's about enforcing the gun laws that are already on the books. Specifically it calls for, like, a new carrot-and-stick system to enforce more accountability in the federal agencies, the military and states to make sure they're reporting what they need to report into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System known as NICS.

That's the universal system that's used when you try to buy a gun, and that is the system that failed in the recent Texas church shooting. The gunman shouldn't have been able to purchase that gun legally because he had been court martialed for domestic abuse. The Air Force admitted that they failed to report that conviction to NICS, and this legislation is aimed at making sure that that does not happen again by closing gaps in the system.

HU: Now, one of the striking things about this legislation was that it was introduced by Texas Senator John Cornyn. He's the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a close ally of the NRA. So Susan, is that a sign that this might have a good chance of passing?

DAVIS: It does. And the NRA notably endorsed the bill this afternoon. That comes on top of the fact that the bill already has four Republican co-sponsors from states with strong support for gun rights. Those sponsors include Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Now, Democrats have been calling for tougher gun laws for years, and many of them still want much tougher gun laws than this. But they say it's a good start. Congress has not passed any major legislation affecting guns since the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. After that shooting, Congress passed a law to make sure mental health records are some of the records that get into that background check system.

HU: Now, after the shooting in Las Vegas, there was a lot of talk about banning bump stocks. Those are the devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to be fired as if they were automatic. Susan, is there any movement on that?

DAVIS: There is. There had initially been scheduled to have a hearing this month, but it was delayed. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley is going to hold a hearing on regulating firearm accessories when the Senate comes back from the Thanksgiving holiday. And like this legislation, some Republicans have indicated they're open to making it harder to buy these devices. But there's no legislation on it yet and certainly no bipartisan consensus.

I also like to remind people that the gun legislation that is moving through Congress and that exists is some that would ease gun restrictions. House Republicans are still looking to pass legislation this Congress to make it easier to purchase guns silencers. And another bill would nationalize concealed carry laws so gun owners can more easily travel state to state.

HU: And we trust you will certainly be following this for us. NPR's Susan Davis at the Capitol - Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.