The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to ban assault weapons and place limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, legislation with strong opposition in the full Senate and in the House.
The bill is the fourth gun-related measure the panel has endorsed since the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Committee members on March 7 approved legislation imposing tougher penalties for gun trafficking, and on March 12 approved expanding U.S. background checks and increasing funding for school safety.
Lawmakers pushing for tougher gun restrictions had counted on public outrage after the Newtown shootings, in which 20 children and six school workers were killed. Backers of gun restrictions now say it will be difficult to pass any measure limiting weapons ownership in either chamber.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat sponsoring the assault-weapons bill, said today that “the road is uphill” and that there is misinformation about the measure, which was approved, 10-8, with only Democratic votes.
“The whole point of this bill is to reduce over time the supply, the possession, the transfer and the sale of military-style weapons,” she said. “Anyone that has a concern that their weapon is affected need only look at the bill and you’ll see most likely your weapon is exempted by name, make and model.”
Feinstein said current and retired law-enforcement officials are exempt from the ban and the bill doesn’t require anyone to surrender a weapon they legally own. It protects more than 2,000 firearms by make and model, she said.
‘Need a Bazooka?’
“Isn’t that enough for the people of the United States? Do they need a bazooka? Do they need other high-powered weapons used to kill in high-powered combat?” Feinstein said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters today he plans to meet with Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont to craft a bill to come to the floor “as soon as we can.” Reid declined to comment on whether the assault-weapons ban would be included in the package or be allowed as an amendment on the Senate floor, saying he would make that decision in consultation with Leahy.
The growing complexity of the debate on Capitol Hill reflects the influence of the National Rifle Association, a Second Amendment advocacy group that claims 4 million members. The gun lobby, led by the NRA, opposes any limitations on the ownership of firearms.
In recent weeks, supporters have said that banning magazines in assault weapons that hold more than 10 rounds also will be difficult to advance in the Senate.
Texas Senator John Cornyn, in opposing the bill, said the push to prohibit assault weapons is “distracting Congress” from enacting solutions to stop the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns. Such a ban “does nothing to deal with the lack of ineffective enforcement of current gun laws,” Cornyn said.
“The law would infringe on the ability of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves and their families,” said Cornyn, who offered four amendments that were defeated.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said while he credits Feinstein’s sincerity in wanting to curb gun violence, the measure “will not appreciably change things and is giving a false sense of safety.”
“The crooks are going to get the guns” regardless of any ban, Graham said.
Polls show more Americans favor a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, including an ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted March 7-10 that found 57 percent in support and 41 percent in opposition.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the assault weapons ban “an important piece of the president’s plan to reduce gun violence.” It won’t “take a single firearm away” from law-abiding Americans, he told reporters today.
The measure approved by the panel prohibits the sale, manufacture and transfer of more than 150 of the most commonly owned assault weapons.
It also outlaws large-capacity magazines and other devices that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and allow shooters to fire numerous rounds of bullets in rapid succession without having to stop and reload.
The bill wouldn’t affect more than 2,200 hunting and sporting rifles by specific make and model and any gun operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action.
At least six of the 55 lawmakers in the Senate Democratic caucus have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to an assault-weapons ban. That includes senators representing pro-gun states such as Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
That would make it difficult for Democrats to put together a 51-vote majority to pass the measure, and especially the 60 votes needed to advance most major legislation in the Senate.
Instead, proponents of new laws want to expand background checks for gun buyers, including on private firearms sales at gun shows and weapons transactions between non-family members.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said he didn’t see the assault-weapons ban getting enough votes to pass and is asking for a separate vote on ammunition magazines.