Assault weapons ban now unlikely to pass. What happened?

Senate majority leader Reid says the assault weapons ban will not be included in the gun control legislation he'll bring to the Senate floor, giving the other measures a better chance at passage.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, shown here on Capitol Hill in February, said Tuesday that fewer than 40 of his chamber's 100 members support a White House-backed bill to renew a ban against so-called assault weapons.

The assault weapons ban is not going to be included in the package of gun control measures that majority leader Harry Reid will bring to the Senate floor for a vote.

Assault weapons prohibition sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California told reporters Tuesday that she’ll be able to offer her legislation as a separate amendment, but that she recognizes its exclusion from the primary bill all but dooms its chance of passage.

“Obviously I’m very disappointed.... The enemies on this are very powerful. I’ve known that all my life,” said Senator Feinstein.

What’s behind this development? The assault weapons ban was unlikely to pass the Senate in any case, and had become so unpopular it risked taking down with it other gun control measures, such as new restrictions on weapons trafficking and a possible expansion of federal background checks.

Senator Reid, a Nevada Democrat, made this point clear Tuesday in surprisingly blunt remarks of his own. He noted that Feinstein feels deeply about the ban, dating back to when, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she found gay activist and city official Harvey Milk shot dead in his office by a rival politician. But he added that his job is to try to cobble together a gun bill that might command 60 Senate votes and thus pass despite any GOP filibuster. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly identified Mr. Milk.]

The assault weapons ban “has less than 40 votes,” said Reid. “That’s not 60.”

In truth, it’s been clear for a long time that the assault weapons ban was doomed, notes Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza.

For one thing, the ban was just too controversial. Gun rights advocates argue that the difference between assault weapons and non-assault hunting rifles is largely cosmetic, and that banning guns based on style won’t make Americans any safer. In the proposed prohibition of an entire class of firearms many saw the beginnings of their nightmare of Washington coming after their guns.

For another, some Senate Democrats were uneasy about the ban. Reid was never behind it, and it made a number of Democrats from red states uneasy.

As Mr. Cillizza points out, Democratic senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia all face reelection in 2014.

These are “all states where gun rights are viewed as part and parcel of the culture and where there remains significant resistance to curtailing those rights,” Cillizza writes.

By pulling the assault weapons ban from the main bill yet scheduling it for a separate vote as an amendment on the Senate floor, the wily Reid may hope to get a two-fold political advantage, writes conservative commentator Ed Morrissey on the Hot Air! website.

For one thing, by defining Feinstein’s ban as the extreme in the gun debate, Reid may be trying to make background checks appear to be a more moderate approach. Many experts think the White House believes such checks would be a more significant advance than the assault weapon ban, at least in political terms.

Plus, endangered Senate Democrats now not only won’t face White House pressure to vote for assault weapon prohibition, they’ll get a chance to go on record as voting against it.

“It’s a win-win for Reid,” writes Mr. Morrissey.

Reid and other Senate leaders are expected to release their larger bill sometime this week. Besides an effort to broaden background checks, it’s likely to include a provision tightening federal laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases, and school safety measures.

Floor votes aren’t likely until next month.

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