House Democratic leaders are working with the National Rifle Association to bolster existing laws blocking mentally ill people from buying guns.
Lacking support to enact strong new gun measures even after the Virginia Tech shootings, Democrats are instead resurrecting legislation, which has drawn broad bipartisan support and NRA backing, that would improve the national background check system.
The measure, a version of which has passed the House in two previous Congresses but died in the Senate, could come to a House vote as early as next month. It would require states to supply more-thorough records, including for any mental illness-related court action against a would-be gun purchaser.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a strong NRA ally who has been a leading opponent of most gun control legislation, is negotiating with the group on the background-check bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has tapped Dingell and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y. — a leading gun control supporter whose husband was fatally shot by a deranged gunman on the Long Island Railroad — to broker a swift compromise measure that could win passage in the House and Senate.
McCarthy said the measure was the best the Democratic-controlled Congress could do even in the wake of the deadly shooting rampage Monday in which a disturbed gunman killed 32 and then himself.
"We're not going to do anything more on guns — it's just not going to happen. This is a pro-gun Congress," said McCarthy.
Current law bars people judged by a court to be "mentally incompetent" from purchasing firearms, but the federal background check database is incomplete, with many states far behind in automating their records and sending them to the FBI.
Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old gunman in the recent shootings, should have failed his background checks and been barred access to guns after a Virginia special justice found in 2005 that his mental illness made him a danger to himself, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said this week.
The measure being negotiated would subject states to possible penalties for failing to provide the information, and authorize new federal grants to help them do so.
"If we give the states what they need to enforce these limits, that's a big step," McCarthy said. "A computer is only as good as the information in it."
The measure has drawn bipartisan interest. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, an NRA ally, is among the Republicans considering signing on.
Talks on the measure are extremely sensitive, given how little time has passed since Monday's shootings on the Blacksburg, Va., campus.
The legislation has spawned an unusual alliance between gun rights activists, who want background checks to be faster, and gun control advocates, who want them to be more accurate. Still, the NRA and some of its congressional allies are skittish about appearing to support any gun control measure in the wake of the Virginia Tech rampage.
"We have a potential opportunity to get something done that both sides have agreed (on) for a couple of years," said Peter Hamm, a Brady Campaign spokesman. "There's clearly a level of distrust that's as tall as Mount Everest between the two sides in this debate. We watch each other carefully."
Democratic Rep. Richard Boucher, who represents the southwestern Virginia district where the shootings unfolded, said he would not talk about gun policies until next week at the earliest, out of respect for the families of the victims. Like most lawmakers, Boucher wore a maroon and orange ribbon on his lapel Friday, set aside as a day of remembrance for the Virginia Tech tragedy.
Dingell would not comment on the talks Friday, nor would the NRA.
"This is not the time for political discussions, public policy debates or to advance a political agenda," the group said in a statement.
However, another gun rights group, the Gun Owners of America, is adamantly opposed to the legislation. It said the measure would allow the government to trample privacy rights by compiling reams of personal information and potentially bar mentally stable people from buying guns.
"The thing that most concerns us about this is our friends at the NRA are supporting it, and that could give Democrats cover in the election," said Larry Pratt, a spokesman for the group. "The NRA is making a mistake on this. This is a bill that could pass."
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a strong gun rights supporter, said he hasn't opposed the background check measure in the past and wouldn't expect to do so now.
Gun measures have been known to spin out of control in the freewheeling Senate — where any senator can seek to amend a bill. Any measure there would be looked upon as an opportunity for both gun control advocates eager to enact stronger limits and their foes pushing to weaken existing gun laws.
For Dingell's effort to succeed, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Capitol likely would have to agree to hold off on a broader gun debate and focus instead on the background-check measure.
"We need to be very careful that we don't intrude on the right of law-abiding and free citizens," Craig said. "We all search for the political screen of, 'Oh, we've got to do something and pass a law, and therefore the world will be a safer place.' Not necessarily."