WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation Thursday making gun trafficking a federal crime as lawmakers cast the first vote in Congress to curb firearms since December's horrific shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.
The panel was also debating bills banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, requiring background checks for nearly all gun purchases, and providing more money for schools to buy video cameras and other safety equipment.
The committee approved the gun trafficking measure on an 11-7 vote. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was the only Republican to vote in favor of the measure, whose chief sponsor was the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Evidence was abundant of partisan clashes ahead as the two parties sparred over the need to limit firearms.
Leahy said he hoped senators would make significant progress this week on curbing gun violence.
Grassley said everyone wants to prevent more killings like the deaths of 20 first-graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But he said gun control does not work and accused Democrats of wanting to "impose more gun restrictions on law-abiding citizens."
All four measures were expected to pass the committee. But their fate when the full Senate considers them, probably in April, is less certain. The trafficking measure by Leahy, D-Vt., was thought to have the best prospects, while the assault weapons ban by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seemed to have the slimmest chance.
The trafficking bill would create penalties of up to 25 years in prison for people who legally buy guns but give them to others who use them in crimes.
Democrats led by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., had hoped to reach a bipartisan deal on expanding federal background checks with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But on Wednesday, Democrats set aside their efforts to win over Coburn after weeks of talks failed to resolve a dispute over requiring that records of private sales be retained.
Their inability to craft a deal with Coburn was a blow to Democrats because of his solid conservative credentials and "A" rating with the NRA. His support could have meant backing from other Senate Republicans and even moderate Democrats, including several facing 2014 re-election campaigns in GOP-leaning states.
In addition, supporters of curbing guns say the Senate will have to approve legislation with strong bipartisan support to boost their chances of success in the GOP-led House. Republican leaders there have said they won't act until the Senate produces legislation.
Democrats said they would negotiate with other Republicans and would not give up on eventually cutting a deal with Coburn.
"We're confident plenty of senators already understand that this is the sweet spot where good policy and politics meet," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-curb group led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino whose membership includes more than 800 mayors.
Expanding the checks is the cornerstone and most popular part of Obama's effort to rein gun violence. They are now mandated only for sales by the nation's 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, not for private sales between individuals, like those at gun shows or online.
An Associated-Press-GfK poll in January found 84 percent favored requiring background checks at gun shows. Other proposed gun curbs were supported by just over half the public.
Thursday's Judiciary session prompted widespread efforts, especially by gun control advocates, to pressure recalcitrant senators and show signs of public support.
Supporters of gun curbs planned rallies outside the home-state offices of Grassley, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., grievously wounded in a Tucson mass shooting two years ago, solicited contributions by email for the political action committee she and husband Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut, have formed to help elect lawmakers who back gun curbs.
"Your contribution will help us keep the pressure on Judiciary Committee senators while ensuring the rest of them see our message" during Congress' recess late this month, she wrote.
NRA officials said they have urged their members, said to number more than 4 million, to contact lawmakers.
Democrats say background check records, whether kept by the individuals, manufacturers or others, are the only way to ensure that the checks are conducted for private sales. Coburn said such information could help create a federal registry of gun owners — something that is now illegal and that the White House says would not happen.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also have been involved in the background check negotiations and said in a joint statement they would continue looking for a compromise with other senators.
"Dr. Coburn is still hopeful they can reach an agreement," Coburn spokesman John Hart said Wednesday.
Lacking agreement with Coburn, Schumer planned to seek a vote by the Judiciary Committee on a bill resembling a measure he initially proposed two years ago. It would require background checks for nearly all gun sales, with narrow exemptions including one for transactions between close relatives. It would also cut federal aid for states that don't send enough mental health records to the federal background check network — a widespread problem that has fueled critics' complaints that the current system should be fixed before it is expanded.