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Senators look to bolster background check system after Texas shooting

Senators are slowly turning on the legislative spigot following the shooting at a rural Texas church that left more than two dozen dead.

The efforts in the Senate are being spurred by the U.S. Air Force’s disclosure late Monday that officials did not submit information to a federal database that the shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic assault that should have prevented him from owning firearms.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) is speaking privately with at least three Democratic senators about legislation that would better ensure the criminal histories of potential gun buyers are properly transferred to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Separately, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said they are working on legislation meant to ensure all domestic violence convictions in the military are captured in the federal database.

Democrats say the efforts won’t go far enough to effectively curb gun violence, but they’re willing to negotiate with Republicans who have long resisted tougher firearms restrictions.

“Frankly, we tried a number of different things that haven’t worked very well,” said Cornyn, the No. 2 GOP senator who also represents Texas, the home state of the massacre. “The status quo is really lousy. So I think we’re just going to have to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out what we can do.”

Republicans who control Capitol Hill have long opposed new gun control measures despite the onslaught of mass shootings, arguing the federal government should enforce laws already in place rather than imposing new ones.

But two of the most recent mass shootings — Sunday’s tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and last month’s at a music festival in Las Vegas — have prompted the GOP-controlled Congress to take a renewed look at potential gun-related revisions to current laws, however modest.

One avenue is potentially restricting bump stocks, a device that increases the rate of fire on a semi-automatic gun so it mimics a fully automatic weapon. Now, Republicans are exploring ways to tighten up potential loopholes in laws governing the federal database used for background checks on gun buyers.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said Tuesday that the Air Force’s failure to send Kelley’s domestic assault convictions is a “pretty serious oversight” and said lawmakers should give more direction to military officials on how to properly report those offenses.

“I’ve talked with some of my colleagues about the idea that if it does take something, some direction from us to integrate those databases so that that information gets captured on the NICS system, that we need to do that,” Thune said in an interview.

A 2007 law requires federal agencies to make records available to NICS that show whether someone would be barred from owning or buying a gun. But states aren’t required to do so, unless their respective laws mandate it or it is a condition of receiving federal funding.

Cornyn said he is looking into a potential “carrots and sticks” approach to coax states to better report that information to the federal database, such as the promise of additional grants.

The Texas Republican on Tuesday released information about a bill he's working on meant to help federal agencies follow through on requirements to send information about criminal convictions to NICS, but is also talking with Heinrich and Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Murphy of Connecticut about legislation that would similarly incentivize states.

“The NICS system is broken. It’s been broken for a long time,” Murphy said in an interview. “We know that there are states that do not upload lists of people with serious mental health issues. We now know that the military has serious issues in uploading records related to” courts-martial.

The background checks database, as well as bump stocks, will be examined at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 14, the panel announced Tuesday. And several senators have also demanded information from the Pentagon on how the lapse could have occurred.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has promised “rigorous oversight” over the military’s probe into the reporting failures, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who leads a subcommittee within Armed Services, has also queried defense leaders on how widespread this issue may be. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a similar letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Some lawmakers also raised the idea of boosting funding for NICS. The database is allotted about $73 million annually for federal grants to entice states to participate in reporting, and a separate $98.1 million to pay for FBI employees that manage the system, a Democratic aide said.

Ann Stefanik, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said the military is required to enter domestic violence offenses into the federal database.

But Flake and Heinrich noted that just one domestic assault conviction had been recorded in the NICS system by the military since 2007 — which the senators say indicates an issue with the system that allows the reporting of domestic violence offenses to fall through the cracks.

“There’s a problem deeper than just the law not being followed,” Flake said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon. “It’s more of a problem with labeling, how these charges or convictions are labeled, and how they’re recorded.”

The Uniform Code of Military Justice doesn’t explicitly include a charge for domestic assault, senators said, which means such convictions in military courts may have gone unreported to NICS.

“This seems to be one of those cases where people on very different sides of what typically is a very divisive debate about guns agree that this is exactly the kind of individual who should have never had a firearm in the first place,” Heinrich said in a separate interview.

Democrats who have repeatedly pushed for tougher gun restrictions indicated they weren’t satisfied by the latest efforts proposed by Republicans on gun violence.

“We need to have a real background-check law, one that works. Everyone except the Republicans in the Congress and the gun lobby agree. We don’t want guns to get in the hands of the wrong people,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “So now we’re going to fill one little gap here and not a lot of others? That’s not the way to solve this.”

But, Durbin added, “I’ll take what I can get.”