Facing long political odds, congressional Democrats nonetheless unveiled legislation on Thursday that would greatly restrict the availability of assault weapons, one of the major legislative changes requested by President Obama in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California offered a bill that sought to toughen restrictions as compared with the previous assault weapons ban while at the same time reassuring current gun owners.
The bill would ban the sale, transfer, manufacture, and importation of all semiautomatic rifles and pistols that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one of roughly a half-dozen potential military features.
Other restrictions include a ban on certain semiautomatic shotguns, ammunition feeding devices able to hold more than 10 rounds, and 157 specific firearms, including the AR-15 Bushmaster used in the Newtown school shooting that turned the attention of the president and the public toward questions of gun violence.
Senator Feinstein was “horrified” and “incensed,” she said, “that our weak gun laws allow these mass killings to be carried out again and again and again” by military-style weapons or firearms equipped with large-capacity magazines.
Feinstein’s bill differs from the previous ban, which expired in 2004, by reducing the number of military-style features that qualify a weapon for the ban from two to one, a change she said would prevent manufacturers from making largely cosmetic changes to skirt the law. The new measure also blocks the import of banned weapons and magazines and would be a permanent change instead of expiring after a decade.
The bill, however, specifically excludes 2,258 “legitimate hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns” (up from under 400 in the 1994 bill) and any weapon lawfully possessed at the time of the bill’s enactment.
“No weapon is taken from anyone,” Feinstein emphasized. “The purpose [of the legislation] is to dry up the supply of these weapons over time.”
While a majority of Americans favor many of the proposals in Feinstein’s law, the assault weapons ban will face a difficult congressional slog because of deep opposition from Republican lawmakers and the powerful National Rifle Association, who marshal questions about whether banning assault weapons would lead to a drop in violence.
Some of the opposition to the Democratic legislation may be purely partisan. Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans surveyed said they supported a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, a Washington Post/ABC poll found in January before the president recommended just such a ban. Just under half of those surveyed supported a ban on assault weapons.
But in a Post/ABC poll taken after the White House’s recommendations were revealed, only 21 percent of Republicans said they found the president’s proposals favorable, giving Republican lawmakers scant reason to go along with the bill. According to the same poll, only a slim majority (51 percent) of independents approve of the president’s offer.
(More than 3 in 4 Democrats surveyed approve of the package, which includes several other measures like universal background checks for gun purchases that all receive higher public support than the assault weapons ban.)
Opponents of the assault weapons ban raise questions about its efficacy. A RAND Corporation analysis of research on gun control legislation found, at best, an indirect link between the 10-year assault weapons ban beginning in 1994 and a corresponding drop in the US murder rate. In general, RAND found, crafting gun legislation to impact violence in the United States would be a tall order.
“The vast number of guns in circulation in the United States — approximately 270 million — raises significant questions,” RAND scholars concluded, “about the time frame over which the nation can reasonably expect new policies to have an effect, the gains that can be achieved in the short run, and the equity of the distribution of burden that any restriction on gun access entails.”
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, however, argues that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms data show the use of assault weapons in crimes fell by two-thirds during the ban compared with the five-year period before it went into effect. Other research suggests a link between an assault weapons ban and a reduction in mass murders, RAND points out.
The assault weapons bill joins other pieces of Obama’s requested changes to the nation’s gun control laws in the 113th Congress.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey reintroduced legislation to require background checks on all gun sales at gun shows, although a law requiring universal background checks for gun purchases as requested by the president remains unwritten.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont offered a bill aimed at stemming “straw purchases,” where a viable buyer purchases a weapon for an ineligible owner, and raising penalties for weapons trafficking in general. Senator Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, will hold a series of hearings beginning next Wednesday on gun issues.
But even within the Democratic caucus there’s not a firm consensus on which pieces of the president’s legislation to trumpet. Lawmakers such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, or red-state Democrats facing reelection in 2014 like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, have not endorsed the assault weapons proposal.
While Democrats in the House are some of gun control's most steadfast advocates and, like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, spoke emotionally on the issue Thursday, the spotlight is on the Senate because the GOP-held House has not signaled it will attempt to pass any of the president's requests.
“Whether it’s going to pass, it’s too early to predict,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, a co-sponsor of the Senate assault weapons ban.
Speaking outside the often-emotional hearing in which Feinstein unveiled her legislation, Senator Durbin noted that as a member of the US House representing a largely rural Illinois district he was often politically targeted by the NRA.
“I understand the politics of this issue,” Durbin said, “but we are elected to Congress even [to vote] on controversial issues like this, and we have an obligation to our voters and this country to do it.”