In the first major legislative movement on gun reform in more than a month, a bipartisan group of six senators, including Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, announced a new bill to strengthen measures against gun trafficking.
The new bill was announced after two similar gun trafficking bills — one introduced by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and the other by Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk — failed to gain momentum in Congress. The new bill, titled the Stop Illegal Trafficking of Firearms Act of 2013, would provide increased resources to law enforcement to prevent and prosecute illegal gun trafficking and straw purchases, instances in which someone buys a gun for an individual prohibited from buying one.
Supporters are hailing the legislation, which is currently co-sponsored by four Democrats and two Republicans, as a bipartisan compromise and a major success in the effort to reform the nation’s gun laws in the wake of December’s shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“The bill strikes a balanced approach and for the first time will create specific prohibitions to deter and punish the dangerous practices of straw purchasing and trafficking of firearms,” Blumenthal said in a statement Tuesday. “This legislation is what law enforcement needs to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals who already legally cannot possess them.”
The bill would make acting as a straw purchaser illegal. According to a statement issued by Leahy Monday, there is currently no specific statute that makes acting as a straw purchaser illegal. Additionally, the bill would make smuggling firearms out of the United States illegal, which its supporters claim would mitigate drug violence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, a lifetime National Rifle Association member, is mounting a similar effort against gun trafficking in the House. In February, Rigell introduced a bill, entitled the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013, that would increase penalties for straw purchases.
The NRA, which has repeatedly vowed to oppose any new firearm restrictions, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On Tuesday, Richard Burgess, president of the gun-rights group Connecticut Carry, said that a new federal law would make no difference in gun trafficking, as federal law already defines most straw purchases as illegal: Lying on a Firearms Transaction Record, the form required to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer, is illegal itself.
The bill will move to the Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, on Thursday. Joining it will be three other bills written largely in response to the Newtown shooting: an assault weapons ban, a school safety bill and a bill requiring universal background checks.
Gun trafficking is, at the moment, experiencing the most bipartisan support of all gun-control measures in the Senate, as negotiations over background checks have stalled and an assault weapons ban has failed to gain Republican backing. Supporters of legislation directed at trafficking have cited long-standing advocacy for such reform from law enforcement.
“Law enforcement and prosecutors are telling us that there is ambiguity in the current code with respect to gun trafficking,” Rigell told The Washington Post shortly before introducing his legislation in February. “They’re telling us that prosecution is difficult. It’s clear that legislation is needed.”
In his statement, Blumenthal said that the legislation introduced Tuesday is supported by a collection of law enforcement organizations, including the National Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National District Attorneys Association and the Police Executive Research Forum.
Municipalities nationwide have also frequently pointed to gun trafficking as a source of urban violence. In a 2009 report entitled, “A Blueprint for Federal Action on Illegal Guns,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, of which New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is a member, outlined several actions the federal executive branch could take to mitigate trafficking. Among the recommendations was increased funding for investigations into straw purchases, which is included in the new bipartisan bill.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who has emerged as one of the leading advocates of gun reform since taking office two months ago, has yet to support the bill publicly. On Tuesday, Murphy spokesman Ben Marter said that Murphy remains focused on passing an assault weapons ban, which Marter characterized as widely supported across the state and nation.
As of yet, no federal legislation introduced in response to Newtown has been signed into law.