A bipartisan group of senators has reached a deal on a bill that would make it a federal crime to buy a gun for someone who isn't legally allowed to own one.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy announced the agreement on the Senate floor Monday evening.
Illegal gun “straw” purchases, made by a buyer on behalf of someone who cannot pass a background check, are often not prosecuted under current law, usually because conducting such a sale yields such a weak penalty.
The new compromise legislation would make the consequences for both straw buyers and sellers far more serious - to the tune of decades in jail.
"Instead of a slap on the wrist or treating this like a paperwork violation, these crimes under our bill would be punishable by up to 25 years in prison," Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said.
In broad strokes, cracking down on gun trafficking has wide support in both parties and isn't intensely controversial, as other potential gun control measures are. A bipartisan group of House members have already introduced a similar trafficking bill in that chamber.
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The Senate legislation will include penalties for the straw purchaser as well as for the gun seller. Collins is a cosponsor, as is Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D- Conn., have also signed on.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the trafficking bill on Thursday, when it also plans to consider three other pieces of gun control legislation: an assault weapons ban, a school safety measure and a bill to require background checks for all gun buyers.
With an assault weapons ban all but doomed to fail, the focus is still on the universal background check bill. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Charles Schumer of New York have been negotiating with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., but those talks have mostly stalled over disagreements about whether to require that private sellers keep records of private gun sales.
“We’re working through all that and Tom will make a decision at the end where he is on the bill,” Manchin said Monday.
Coburn told reporters late Monday that he spoke by phone with President Barack Obama earlier in the day, but would not elaborate on the subject of their discussion.
Democrats have been circulating the potential background check bill to other Republican senators as they continue talking to Coburn. Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake have both been involved, as has Collins.
It's unlikely that they'll reach a deal before Thursday's planned Judiciary Committee markup, Democratic aides said Monday. If there’s no deal, the committee would take up a background check bill that Democrats wrote during the last Congress.
Manchin said he hoped to reach a deal before the committee meeting. “We’re trying. But if not, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.
Negotiations around background checks could then continue until the bill reaches the Senate floor. The National Rifle Association opposes universal background checks; Coburn has an "A" rating from that group.
Asked which Republican senators might emerge as a potential cosponsor if Coburn decides not to, Manchin told NBC News: “I think that anybody that comes from the gun culture, especially those that have had A ratings.”
Senate Democratic aides say the chamber is likely to consider gun legislation on the Senate floor during the first week of April.
This story was originally published on Mon Mar 4, 2013 6:22 PM EST