Sandy Hook tragedy: Pro-gun senator says it's time to ban assault rifles

The support of pro-gun Democrats, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, is boosting prospects for a new drive to ban semi-automatic weapons and high-ammunition clips.

Charles Krupa/AP
Stuffed animals and a sign calling for prayer rested at the base of a tree near the Newtown Village Cemetery in Newtown, Conn., on Monday. A gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before killing himself.

Will the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School lead to a new ban on assault rifles? That’s one question emerging in Washington as lawmakers react to a mass shooting that has left a Connecticut town in mourning and the nation itself wrestling with the single word, “why."

Most if not all of the bullets fired by gunman Adam Lanza came from an assault rifle, a civilianized version of the military’s M-16. Such semi-automatic weapons were banned for 10 years in the early 1990s. But the ban expired in 2004 and was not renewed as the political trend of the time, reflecting public opinion, was toward looser regulation of firearms.

Now Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California says she’ll reintroduce a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips in the next Congress. There are some indications that her proposal will receive at least a more serious hearing than have other recent attempts to curb these popular military-style items.

One reason an assault rifle ban may have life is that at least one prominent pro-gun Democrat has voiced support. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is himself an avid hunter and such a firm supporter of Second Amendment gun rights that one famous campaign ad depicted him firing a rifle bullet through an environmental bill. But on MSNBC Monday morning, Senator Manchin said that it’s time to sit down with the National Rifle Association (which has endorsed him in the past) to talk through common sense curbs that might help prevent another Sandy Hook.

“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anybody that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about,” said Manchin.

If any new gun measure is to pass, it will need wide support from Democrats such as Manchin who represent red states. There are a number of red-state Senate Dems up for reelection in 2014, points out Aaron Blake on The Washington Post’s political blog, The Fix, including Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

In this regard, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada will be key, as he himself represents a pro-gun swing state.

“If those red state Democrats vote for a bill, it will be in large part because of Reid’s leadership and because he took the leap with them,” writes Mr. Blake.

A second reason a ban on assault rifles may stand a better chance of passage now is because recent federal court rulings have tended to uphold Second Amendment gun ownership rights.

That’s an argument that Georgetown University associate professor of justice Erik Voeten makes on the Monkey Cage political science blog, in any case. He says that the case against an assault weapons ban rests on a “slippery slope” argument that if you limit these weapons, the next thing that will happen is the US will come for handguns and hunting rifles. But that seems very unlikely in the context of recent Supreme Court rulings.

“If legislators feel assured that the Supreme Court protects core gun rights, then they have at least an argument to their constituents for accepting such a ban,” Professor Voeten writes. “A ban on the manufacturing and sale of semi-automatic rifles would also have important spillover effects for Central America, where many massacres are committed with assault weapons purchased in the US. This may matter too in certain key states.”

A final reason a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines may face a brighter future is that the public supported it before last week’s tragedy, and thus today may support it even more strongly.

As we wrote last week, US public opinion is not in favor of sweeping gun control laws. Asked generally whether gun rights or gun control is more important, voters tend to line up on the gun rights side of the equation.

But as with many issues, polls that ask about specific policies show a different picture. Many particular gun control measures are popular. A CNN/ORC poll taken in August showed respondents in favor of a ban on the manufacture and sale of AK-47 style assault rifles by 57 percent to 42 percent. Respondents were in favor of a ban on high-capacity magazines by an even wider 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

That was before Sandy Hook, remember. It’s quite likely these gun measures are now favored by larger majorities.

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