(REUTERS) - The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday backed President Barack Obama's call to crack down on illegal trafficking of firearms, marking the first votes in Congress on gun-control since a school massacre last year prompted calls for action.
On a largely party-line vote of 11-7, the Democratic-led committee approved a bill to make it a federal crime to engage in "straw purchasing," or buying of guns on behalf of those who are prohibited from owning them.
"It is designed to prevent criminals from using straw purchasers who can pass a background check and then hand those firearms to criminals," Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said. The bill imposes a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Republican critics of the bill argued the measure was not needed, saying existing laws were adequate. They also warned it could send someone to jail even if they did not know the ultimate buyer was not permitted to own a gun.
The proposal was the first of four measures that make up a gun-control package that are to be voted on separately in the committee.
All four are expected to pass, setting up fights in the full Senate where Republicans strongly oppose a proposed ban on assault weapons and have doubts about a plan to expand background checks on prospective gun buyers.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the panel's top Republican, joined the committee's 10 Democrats in backing the arms-trafficking bill.
But he made it clear he will lead the charge against the next bill up for action by the committee, prohibiting the sale of military-style assault weapons. He said a ban, similar to one that ran out in 2004 after 10 years in force, would violate the constitutional right to bear arms.
"This bill represents the biggest gun ban proposal in our history. A similar ban was enacted in 1994. And the Justice Department's own studies failed to show that the ban had any effect," Grassley said.
But Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said the Newtown school massacre in his state of Connecticut in December would have had fewer victims if the gunman did not have a military-style semi-automatic assault weapon with a high-capacity ammunition magazine. The bill would ban the weapons and limit magazines to 10 bullets.
"Newtown showed on the ground how a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips would have saved lives," Blumenthal said.
The 20 children who died in the Newtown school shooting were each hit with three to 11 bullets. Six adults were also shot dead.
Along with the assault weapons bans, the other main element of Obama's gun control push is widening background checks on gun buyers. The measure was earlier seen as having a good chance in Congress but it has stumbled in recent days over a dispute about whether to keep records of private gun sales.
Republicans fear such records would be a first step to a government register of gun owners.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma appeared more optimistic on Thursday about the possibility of reaching an agreement with Democrats on background checks.
"I think we'll ultimately get there even though the outside groups aren't comfortable with it yet," Mr Coburn said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
Gun control is one of Obama's top domestic priorities, along with immigration reform and fixing a series of budget messes. But he faces opposition from Republicans, as well as some pro-gun Democrats, and an aggressive lobbying campaign by the National Rifle Association.
Democrats control the Senate Judiciary Committee by 10-8 but they might need 60 votes to clear gun control legislation in the 100-member Senate where they have only a 55-45 majority.
A proposal by Senator Barbara Boxer to bolster school security is winning bipartisan support.
The California Democrat wants to provide US$40 million (S$50 million) a year for 10 years in matching federal grants to schools to strengthen security.
Her plan would authorise the US Justice Department to create a National Center for Campus Public Safety to serve as a clearing house for best practices and information.