By ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON (AP) — Gun control advocates are pressing Democrats to make expanded federal background checks for firearms buyers a cornerstone of the gun control legislation the Senate plans to debate next month, calling it the best way for lawmakers to salvage a meaningful response to December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is widely expected to include a broadening of the background system in the overall gun legislation, say Senate aides and lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal Democratic deliberations.
They caution he has yet to make a final decision as he waits to see if senators can strike a bipartisan deal on the proposal. If they don't, he will have to calculate whether to introduce a more modest overall gun bill without background checks or dare Republicans to scuttle a bolder one that includes the expanded system.
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Background checks are designed to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others. The checks are currently required only for sales involving federally licensed gun dealers, not for private transactions at gun shows or online.
President Barack Obama and other supporters say the system helps keep dangerous people from getting guns and should be expanded to virtually all firearms transactions. The National Rifle Association and other opponents say the checks are easily avoided by criminals who get their weapons illegally, and say expanding them would be a step toward a government registry of firearms owners — which is forbidden by federal law.
In a hint of possible movement, three senators who have spent weeks searching for a bipartisan deal are considering several options, including one that requiring background checks and record keeping for private sales at gun shows and commercial sales online. It would exclude in-person, non-commercial transactions between people who know each other. The idea was described by a lobbyist and Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Other exclusions could include gun transactions between relatives and acquisitions by people with state-issued concealed carry permits, and there would be an online system for people in remote areas. Veterans officially determined to have some psychological problems would be given a way to appeal that decision, which would otherwise bar them from getting firearms.
The three senators are No. 2 Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, a liberal; moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has an NRA A-rating for his votes; and moderate Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Schumer has been insisting on record keeping for all private gun sales, saying the files are needed to keep the system effective. That led to stalemated talks with conservative leader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who says the data would lead to federal files on gun owners.
Reid hopes to make procedural moves this week that will let the Senate start debating gun legislation when it returns from a two-week recess in early April. That will give senators more time to try striking a background check deal.
Though unlikely, Reid could leave background checks out of the Senate bill but allow a separate vote on it as an amendment. That would diminish its chances for passage because Republicans would almost certainly force Democrats to get 60 votes in the 100-member chamber, a difficult hurdle.
Including expanded checks in the gun legislation would signal either of two courses by Democrats: A feeling that they can win bipartisan support for the measure, or a willingness to essentially challenge Republicans to reject the entire gun-control package and face the political consequences in next year's elections.
On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leader of hundreds of mayors seeking stricter gun curbs, stepped up pressure on Congress to expand background checks, saying there it would save lives and win broad public support.
"The only question is whether Congress will have the courage to do the right thing, or whether they will allow more innocent people, including innocent children, to be gunned down," he said at a New York news conference.
"It's time for the political establishment to show the courage your daughter showed," said Vice President Joe Biden, standing beside Bloomberg and motioning to the nearby family of a substitute teacher among 26 first-graders and educators killed at Newtown.
Days ago, supporters of gun restrictions suffered a blow when Reid decided to exclude a proposed assault weapons ban from the gun bill the Senate will debate.
Reid said the ban lacked the 60 votes it would need and including it would risk defeat of the entire package. The ban's sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to offer the provision as an amendment that seems certain to lose.
The overall gun bill appears sure to include language creating tougher penalties for illegal firearms trafficking and expanding school safety grants. Both received bipartisan support when they were approved earlier this month by the Senate Judiciary Committee and are considered effective by gun curb advocates, but some supporters of firearms restrictions say Congress should do more.
"Inadequate for the moment," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group Bloomberg helps lead.
"The American public wants and is clearly calling for all those solutions," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Background checks is a vitally important part of that."
The committee also approved expanded background checks and the assault weapons ban on party-line votes.
Asked if the NRA would consider it a victory if the bill were limited to stronger gun trafficking laws and school safety provisions, NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox said, "Is it promising that this discussion is moving away from gun control and toward school safety, enforcement and mental health? It's encouraging but it's still early in the process."
The NRA wants Congress to fund more armed guards at schools, step up prosecutions of people who file false gun applications and increase the federal background check system's access to state records of people with serious mental illness and other problems.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.