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Trafficking crackdown may be Obama's best chance on gun control

A view shows confiscated guns on a table during a news conference where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly
A view shows confiscated guns on a table during a news conference where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Winning a crackdown on gun traffickers may be the best that President Barack Obama can get in his faltering efforts to have Congress pass gun control legislation.

Lawmakers are scaling back the White House's ambitions for sweeping gun control measures after a planned ban on assault weapons was effectively ruled out in the Senate this week.

Two senators involved in the gun debate said on Wednesday that a bill to tackle trafficking looks like it is the gun control measure with the most chance of success.

"The most likely bill to pass" is a measure that would make it a federal crime to purchase guns for someone who is barred from owning one, said Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Such transactions, dubbed "straw purchases," allow criminals to obtain firearms while avoiding background checks.

Durbin, from Illinois, said straw purchasing "is flooding Chicago with guns." The prospect of 15 years in jail under the bill will frighten off people who buy weapons for Chicago criminals, he said.

"It scares the hell out of them. It should be scaring the hell out of them. That's why I think this will be the lead piece of legislation," Durbin told a Wall Street Journal breakfast roundtable with reporters.

Durbin said the only other gun-related measure that will likely win approval is one to provide $40 million a year for 10 years to improve school security. It is seen as a minor step in the fight against gun violence. "It is virtually non-controversial," Durbin said.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa agreed that the two issues would receive support in the Senate.

"Those will pass," Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Reuters. "Trafficking firearms is a serious problem," he said.

Obama suffered a blow on Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged there was not enough support for prohibiting the sale of assault weapons.

The proposed ban was one of the parts of Obama's gun control efforts most directly linked to the December 14 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six adults dead. The gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, used an assault-style semi-automatic rifle.

A push to impose a limit of 10 bullets on high-capacity ammunition clips is also likely to die in the Senate through lack of support from both Republicans who traditionally oppose gun control and pro-gun Democrats, some of whom fear being targeted by a National Rifle Association lobbying campaign.

The only remaining major gun control effort is a plan to require background checks for all gun buyers. But it is also in danger.

"It could pass the Senate, but it will never get through" the Republican-led House of Representatives, Grassley said.

Grassley charged that the background check bill, despite claims to the contrary by Democrats, would "lead to (gun) registration," which has been long opposed by gun-rights advocates.

Durbin suggested that the fate of the background check bill may depend on efforts to reach an elusive bipartisan compromise. There is a snag over proposed record-keeping in private sales.

Federally registered gun dealers are required to conduct background checks on buyers, but about 40 percent of purchases are from private sellers who have no such obligation. The bill would expand the background check requirement to private sales.

(This story has been corrected to fix description of weapon in 12th paragraph to semi-automatic)

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Tim Dobbyn)

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