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Gun bill wins odd alliance

WASHINGTON — In an unlikely alliance of politicians often at odds on gun issues, leading Republicans and Democrats in Congress announced a deal on Thursday on legislation that would provide more than $1.1 billion to help prevent felons, illegal immigrants and others from buying guns.

The legislation appears headed for near-certain passage in both houses of Congress, a rare achievement in the hot-button area of gun legislation. Backers said the measure, if passed, would represent the most significant gun safety initiative to be approved by Congress in seven years.

The measure is supported by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who at first blush appear to be "strange bedfellows," acknowledged Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who has been an ardent foe of past gun control bills.

But in a rare area of agreement, gun rights backers like Dingell and gun control advocates believe that the FBI's system for conducting background checks on some 7 million would-be gun buyers each year is badly broken.Gun groups complain that despite recent improvements in the process of checks, it still takes too long for many purchases to be approved. And gun control groups assert that thousands of felons, spouse abusers, illegal immigrants, people with a history of mental illness and others banned by federal law from buying guns continue to slip through the cracks.

The proposal announced on Thursday seeks to repair the system by providing state agencies and courts with $375 million a year for the next three years to upgrade their databases on criminals and others precluded from legally owning guns. It would also penalize states that fail to meet certain performance markers by cutting their federal grant money.

The aim, said Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, was to create "an effective, accurate, speedy background check" and to keep guns from people who are prohibited from owning them.

Craig, a board member of the National Rifle Association, and Dingell, a past board member, have sparred with gun control advocates like Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, both Democrats of New York. Craig and Schumer, for instance, remain on opposite sides of the current debate over bills protecting gun makers from legal liability and reauthorizing a ban on certain types of assault weapons.

But all four lawmakers appeared at a news conference on Thursday to support the background-check legislation. And by securing the backing of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the influential Utah Republican, backers predicted swift passage by both houses of Congress.

Hatch helped to stall similar legislation in the Senate last year after it had passed the House, but he has now pledged his support after stiffer penalties were included as a "stick" against states that fail to upgrade their databases.

Even the NRA, which has worked to derail many past gun control measures, said on Thursday that it supported the plan.

"We think this is a step in the right direction," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, "and with Larry Craig and John Dingell as co-sponsors, we're confident that this legislation will help bring about the promise of an instant gun check for Americans."

Some mental health advocates have objected to the proposal because they said it could further stigmatize the mentally ill and violate their privacy rights by putting more medical information into a national database. But backers said that they had been careful to include safeguards in the legislation that they believed would protect the privacy rights of the mentally ill while preventing them from buying guns.

Backers said the measure, if approved, would represent the first substantial piece of federal gun legislation since at least 1996, when Congress expanded the list of those banned from legally buying guns to include convicted domestic abusers.

"The significant thing about this legislation," said Jim Kessler, policy director for Americans for Gun Safety, which worked with lawmakers in developing the bill, "is that it explodes the myth that nothing can be achieved on guns in Congress."

In a study last year, Kessler's group found that flawed record-keeping had allowed nearly 10,000 people from legally owning guns to pass background checks and buy guns in a 30-month period. The group gave failing grades to 22 states "for having grossly inadequate criminal, domestic violence and mental disability records."

Federal statistics show that 20 states have not fully automated their felony records, 40 states do not automate or share disqualifying mental health records and eight states do not automate or share domestic violence restraining orders.

"It's a catch-as-catch-can system, and we're not catching enough," Schumer said.

One widely publicized failure came 18 months ago at a Long Island church when a man with a history of mental illness shot to death a Roman Catholic priest and a parishioner.

The shooter, Peter Troy, was able to buy the rifle used in the shootings four days earlier at a gun shop even though he had been admitted to mental facilities and had violated a restraining order.

The episode crystallized the shortcomings in the background check system, and lawmakers in the House named their version of the legislation "the Our Lady of Peace Act" in honor of the site of the murders.

"This never should have happened," Schumer said. "All the signs were there."