Three months after the shootings of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school outraged the nation, Senate Democratic leaders are dropping an assault-weapons ban from gun legislation.
While public opinion polls show most Americans support such a ban, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday the proposal has fewer than 40 votes in the 100-member chamber. Its sponsor, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, will be given a chance to offer the measure as an amendment to gun legislation that Democrats will introduce, second-ranking Democrat Dick Durbin told reporters.
The assault-weapon ban is “the toughest one and the hottest politically” of the gun-safety measures passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin said today at a breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. He said Reid’s decision to exclude it from gun-safety legislation “is reflecting the reality” that “you need 60 votes to open the debate.”
Allowing Feinstein to introduce the proposal as an amendment “is the best way we can do to make sure it comes to the floor,” Durbin said.
Advocates for stricter gun laws had counted on public anger over the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to end a two-decade drought in major U.S. gun legislation. A 1994 ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted March 7-10 found 57 percent supporting such a ban and 41 percent opposing it.
President Barack Obama urged Congress last month to enact measures including restoring the ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons. “Weapons of war have no place on our streets or in our schools or threatening our law enforcement officers,” he said in a speech in Minneapolis.
Still, backers of gun restrictions have said it will be difficult to pass any measure limiting weapon ownership in the House or Senate.
The National Rifle Association, a Fairfax, Virginia-based gun-ownership-rights advocacy group that claims 4 million members, opposes curbs on owning firearms. Many Republicans say they prefer to improve enforcement of existing laws, and that criminals will be able to obtain guns regardless of any ban.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he’s trying to craft legislation that would ensure votes on banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, expanding background checks for gun purchases, bolstering federal aid for school safety and toughening penalties for illegal firearms trafficking.
“But I cannot do that until I get a bill on the floor,” Reid told reporters in Washington. He said he wants to have legislation ready next month after the Senate returns from a 2 1/2-week recess set to begin March 23.
Feinstein’s proposed assault-weapon ban, “using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes,” Reid said. “That’s not 60.”
Durbin said it’s his understanding that Reid will offer legislation containing three main elements: expanding background checks for gun buyers, boosting school safety and imposing tougher penalties for gun trafficking.
Legislation to toughen penalties for “straw purchases” of guns is the most likely bill to pass the Senate, Durbin, a co-sponsor said today.
“It’s significant” because beat cops in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods say the prospect of a 15-year sentence for illegal gun trafficking “scares the hell out of” people who would buy guns for friends, Durbin said.
At least six senators in the 55-member Senate Democratic caucus have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to an assault-weapon 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.
Their opposition would doom chances for the measure to gain a 51-vote majority, much less attain the 60-vote supermajority needed for major legislation to advance in the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on March 14 approved a measure to ban assault weapons and place limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines. The vote was 10-8, with only Democrats in support.
Feinstein’s proposal to limit the size of high-capacity ammunition magazines has a better chance of passing the Senate, “maybe over 50” percent, than the assault-weapons ban, Durbin said.
Feinstein said March 14 that the ban would exempt current and retired law-enforcement officials, and it wouldn’t require anyone to surrender a weapon they legally own. It would exempt more than 2,000 firearms by make and model, she said.
“Isn’t that enough for the people of the United States? Do they need a bazooka?” Feinstein said March 14.
The gun lobby opposes any restrictions on ownership of firearms and ammunition, and wants to thwart an expansion of background checks.
The NRA spent $16.6 million on television advertising in the 2012 election cycle, including $12 million against Obama, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.