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A Gun Owner From The Left, Sen. Leahy Leads The Debate

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., voted to allow guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains, but rejects suggestions that he'll slow-walk gun control efforts through Congress.
Chip Somodevilla
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., voted to allow guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains, but rejects suggestions that he'll slow-walk gun control efforts through Congress.

President Obama says he's willing to use "whatever power his office holds" to stop gun violence, but the fate of many of his White House proposals will rest in no small part with one man: the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talked this week about his plans for gun control hearings. Leahy, 72, has been in the Senate more than half his life. He's well-known in Washington for his cameo appearances in Batman movies. Now, new White House proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are shining a different kind of spotlight on him.

Starting The Conversation

Leahy is a proud gun owner in Vermont, a state not known for tight gun controls. At a talk this week at his alma mater, Georgetown University Law Center, Leahy brushed back any suggestion he'd drag his feet on the president's plans.

"Well, I think it is an urgent situation," he said. "That's why the first hearings held by anybody, House or Senate, is going to be by me and my committee."

Leahy's Judiciary Committee will start hearing from experts on Jan. 30. He wants to look broadly at the issues, including mental health care and the exposure of children to violence and gun safety. That means a series of hearings that could extend for weeks, not the lightning-fast approach favored by some big-city mayors who want changes right away.

Leahy has voted to allow guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains, but he also supported the 1994 assault weapons ban and prohibitions on "cop killer" bullets. Many of the measures on the table now, he said, are a matter of common sense.

"About the only gun law we have in Vermont is during deer season," he said. "If you have a semi-automatic, you can't have more than six rounds in it. Are we really as a nation saying we are going to be more protective of the deer than we are of our children? I think not."

Getting Gun Control Through A Conflicted Congress

Leahy's Republican counterpart, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, tells NPR there's a lot of unease about new gun regulations in his home state.

"From the town meetings I've had, I can say that there's very much distrust of Congress and the president on this issue, and this fear of taking guns away from people that ought to, under the Constitution, legitimately have those guns," Grassley says.

Grassley says he's open to having hearings and taking a close look at the issue, but any legislation will have to wait until fiscal deadlines are resolved sometime in March.

"I think when it deals with the felonies and the mental health issues, I don't think that's a concern of my constituents," Grassley says. "But when you talk about depriving people to buy guns that they might want to buy, then they consider that a slippery slope."

Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who supports gun rights, has raised big questions about whether an assault weapons ban can make it through Congress.

To which Leahy has said: "The fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help."

Putting His Seniority To Another Use

Leahy told the audience at Georgetown that he's come to appreciate the virtue of tenure in the Senate. He's now the third in line to the presidency, and said he expects to use that clout — and most of the Judiciary Committee's energy this spring — on another legislative priority for the president.

"Our nation relies on immigrants," Leahy said. "We have to find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change to our immigration laws. And that should include a path to citizenship."

An overhaul of the immigration system has been considered — and set aside — by Congress before, but many lawmakers say that could be an easier lift this year than the even more divisive issue of new gun regulations.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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