As President Barack Obama unveiled sweeping gun control reforms today, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee announced he’d hold a hearing on proposals in two weeks.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), speaking at Georgetown University Law Center about the panel’s 2013 legislative agenda, declared reducing gun violence to be one of his priorities in the new Congress. In December the Vermont liberal opted to remain chairman of Judiciary despite being in line for the top seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, surprising many.
Today Obama proposed legislative consideration of a new assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, both of which will likely face stiff resistance in Congress. The reforms come in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed in December.
“The fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help,” Leahy said this morning. “I look forward to reviewing the proposals the president is announcing today.”
Leahy, a Georgetown Law graduate, also said immigration reform will be a top priority of the Senate Judiciary Committee this year. He said he planned to devote “most of our time this spring” to the passage of comprehensive reform.
“Tacking this complex issue should inspire us to uphold the fundamental values of family and of hard work and of fairness,” he said, adding that he will look to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for leadership on the issue. Durbin, the Senate’s Majority Whip, was instrumental in the passage of the DREAM Act last year.
Also on the slate this year are the Violence Against Women’s Act and discussion of mandatory minimum sentences.
VAWA expired at the end of the last congressional session amid opposition from House Republicans to expanding the act to protect Native Americans, immigrants and lesbian, gay and transgender people. The dispute over expanding protections meant the statute failed to be reauthorized for the first time since it was enacted in 1994. Leahy said VAWA will be the first piece of legislation he introduces in the new Congress.
“I have never seen a police officer at a crime scene say, ‘Well before we can do anything about this person who has been beaten, perhaps to death, we must make sure the person is straight, or an American or not Native American,” he said. “A victim is a victim is a victim.”
Leahy, a former state prosecutor in Vermont, said mandatory minimum sentences for offenders should be tossed. “Let judges act as judges,” he said.
The only mention of the committee’s direct oversight of the Justice Department came as part of a question about new marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado. Leahy wrote to the White House in December to ask how the department plans to handle the discrepancy between state and federal law in the governance of marijuana possession. The drug, now legal up to a certain amount in the two states, is still considered illegal to possess under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Leahy offered no predictions but said as a legislator he is concerned about state’s rights.
“I am concerned that just because marijuana is illegal under federal law that we are going to ignore what states do and send law enforcement in there to enforce federal law even though states have a different view on it,” he said.