By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday any gun-control bill that passes his chamber can only be effective if it includes universal background checks, an embattled centerpiece of President Barack Obama's bid to curb gun violence.
Reid voiced hope an elusive bipartisan compromise could soon be reached on requiring virtually all firearm purchasers to be screened for possible criminal and mental-health records.
Republicans have voiced concerns that a proposed record-keeping provision in private sales could lead to registration, something that gun-rights groups have long opposed.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in a statement, "In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks."
Federally registered gun dealers are required to conduct such background checks, but about 40 percent of guns are purchased from private sellers who have no such obligation.
Polls show that about 90 percent of Americans favor requiring all gun buyers to be screened. But Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to do it.
The background-check measure the Democratic-led Senate is set to consider next month, unless a compromise is reached, was drafted by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
For private transactions, it would basically exempt only buyers who are immediate family members of the sellers - fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and their children.
Republicans want friends also to be exempted. In addition, they have pushed to eliminate a provision that would require the seller to keep a record of the transaction.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said this week the background check measure "could pass the Senate, but it will never get through the House" of Representatives, which Republicans control.
PROPOSALS FOLLOW CONNECTICUT SCHOOL MASSACRE
Earlier this week, Reid acknowledged there was not enough support in the Senate to pass another key part of Obama's drive to crack down on gun violence - a proposed renewal of a ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons.
Obama proposed a package of measures after a massacre at a Connecticut elementary school in December in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death.
Gun rights groups and their supporters in Congress have argued that many of the proposals, including the ban on assault weapons, would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The Senate is set to begin consideration of gun legislation when Congress returns from its Easter recess in the second week of April.
Reid said he would bring a bill to the floor that includes expanded background checks along with two other measures approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One would make it a federal crime to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one. The other would provide $40 million a year over 10 years to bolster school security.
Both of those measures are expected to win Senate approval, but it is unclear what, if any, other measures may be passed.
Reid said he would permit a number of amendments to the pending gun bill, including ones that would impose a 10-bullet limit on high-capacity ammunition clips.
He said he would also allow a vote on the proposed assault weapons ban, even though he said earlier this week that fewer than 40 of the chamber's 100 members backed it.
"In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for these provisions to receive votes, and I will ensure that they do," Reid said.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Peter Cooney)