Monday, December 29, 2014

Lautenberg, Fitzpatrick introduce gun bills

WASHINGTON -- Two lawmakers from the region introduced bills to strengthen gun laws Tuesday as the national debate on firearms continues to boil.

Lautenberg, Fitzpatrick introduce gun bills

Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (left), a Bucks County Republican, and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. (File Photos)
Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (left), a Bucks County Republican, and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. (File Photos)

WASHINGTON -- Two lawmakers from the region introduced bills to strengthen gun laws Tuesday as the national debate on firearms continues to boil.

One measure, by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, would ban high-capacity gun magazines, as President Obama has called for. The other, from Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, would require states to report people with mental health problems to the FBI's national database for background checks.

Lautenberg, a Democrat who has long backed tougher gun laws, re-introduced a measure he had sponsored in 2011 calling for limiting all gun magazines to 10 bullets or fewer.

“The latest tragedy in Newtown was a wake-up call for our nation, and now we must now turn our grief into action to reduce further tragedies,” Lautenberg said. “This is the kind of sensible reform that has the support of Democrats and Republicans, hunters and responsible gun owners, and it is time for Congress to listen to the American people and put this ban back in place.”

There are 16 fellow Democrats co-sponsoring the Senate version.

Obama has called for banning high-capacity clips, along with banning assault weapons and mandating background checks for all gun purchases. The move for tougher background checks appears to have momentum on its side and the assault weapons ban is considered a long shot.

The clip restriction falls somewhere in between.

Lautenberg first introduced his bill after the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, where the attacker fired 31 bullets in 15 seconds. The shooter was tackled when he stopped to reload.

Fitzpatrick, in introducing his plan, cited testimony from gun control advocates who have said that improving background checks could be one of the most effective ways to cut down on gun violence. His plan requires that people involuntarily committed for mental health evaluations -- called 302 commitments -- are reported to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“What this act would do is strengthen national background check system and close the loopholes to ensure that dangerous people are not able to get their hands on dangerous weapons,” Fitzpatrick said.

The idea for the bill began after the Virginia Tech shooting, in which the shooter’s mental health evaluations were not reported to the federal database, Fitzpatrick said.

Seventeen states have laws about sharing mental illness information with the national database, but many have not followed through. The system has just 20 percent of the information on the mentally ill that it should have, Fitzpatrick’s office said, citing information from Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns. Just last week, Pennsylvania sent more than 643,000 mental health records to the FBI after legal and technical problems delayed their transmission for two years.

“Too many states do not provide that information to other states or the federal government,” Fitzpatrick said.

States that don’t comply with the reporting requirements in Fitzpatrick's bill would lose 10 percent of their Byrne-Justice Assistance Grants, which help fund law enforcement. The current penalty is 4 percent of the grants, but  it is not mandatory, Fitzpatrick said.

Pennsylvania police argue that such mental health commitments bar residents from buying a gun in the state, though federal officials told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it’s not clear if that is the case under federal law.

If other states complied, though, it would at the very least enhance the background check system.

Fitzpatrick’s bill would allocate $125 million to states to help them with any technological problems needed to share information.

Fitzpatrick has backed the idea of closing loopholes in the background check system, but would not say Tuesday if he would support a plan to require a background check on every gun sale, as Obama has advocated. He said he would have to see the details of a proposal when it comes up.

Jonathan Tamari
About this blog

Jonathan Tamari is the Inquirer’s Washington correspondent. He writes about the lawmakers, politics and policy that affect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Tamari previously covered the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL. Before that he worked in Trenton, reporting on the characters and color of New Jersey state government. He lives in Washington.

Reach Jonathan at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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