WASHINGTON—The Senate Judiciary Committee last week sent a sweeping assault weapons ban to the Senate floor for a full vote, but all signs point to a quick death for the controversial gun control legislation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., drafted the legislation in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown elementary school shooting last December. It resembles her original ban, which passed in 1994 and expired in 2003. The bill would place a ban on the production and sale of semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with features such as telescoping stocks, pistol grips, bayonet mounts and rifle grenade launchers that make the weapons more deadly than a firearm needed for hunting or home defense. It also would ban high-capacity magazines—cartridges that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
After more than two months of hearings, policy meetings and negotiations, partisan gridlock is making any possibility of passage slimmer by the day. Feinstein’s closing remarks in the Judiciary Committee reflected her desperation.
“I think every member of this committee needs to ask themselves a few questions,” she said. “The road is uphill, I fully understand it, but there is not one poll that does not show that the American people want this.”
Specifically, lawmakers are already discussing separating the section of the bill that deals with banning high-capacity magazines from the rest of the legislation in the belief that it can survive, while the larger ban on weapons is likely to fail.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., mentioned the split to Feinstein minutes after the committee approved the bill.
“It’s pretty clear that the assault weapons ban, the other party has become locked in against that, so I don’t see us getting 60 votes,” he said.
In every mass shooting since 1984, attackers have been equipped with magazines of at least 14 rounds. In the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect James Holmes had an AR-15 equipped with a 100 round high capacity drum. Mark Kelly, husband of former Ariz. Rep. Gabby Giffords, claims that many people wounded or killed in the Tucson shooting could have been spared had shooter Jared Loughner used a smaller magazine because he was apprehended while fumbling to reload.
Some Republican senators oppose the magazine ban as a limit on citizens’ self-defense capabilities. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pointed to the case of a woman in Atlanta who fought off an intruder with a six-shot revolver. Graham said the invader fled after the woman shot him all six times.
“I shudder to think what would have happened had there been a second intruder,” he said.
Divisions were stark and frustrations were high in the committee’s final debate.
Feinstein and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, clashed after Cruz accused the California senator of disrespecting the Constitution.
“I am not a sixth-grader, senator,” she replied, bristling. She recounted her harrowing experience slipping her finger into a bullet wound while searching for a pulse for slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.
“I walked in, I saw people shot,” Feinstein said. “I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I’ve seen the bullets that implode. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered. … I’m not a lawyer, but after 20 years I’ve been up close and personal to the Constitution. I have great respect for it.”
The fight came in the midst of a series of weakening amendments proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, all of which were voted down.
Despite Feinstein’s defense, Cruz’s argument is holding water among members of the GOP, and that spells bad news for the assault weapons ban on the floor. Attempts by moderate Democrats to reach across the aisle have repeatedly been rebuffed.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is a lifelong member of the NRA, and is struggling to bridge the gap between the parties on gun control—to no avail so far. According to Manchin’s office, the senator maintains a good relationship with the gun lobby despite his efforts to pass gun control legislation the NRA opposes. However, that good relationship did nothing to stop his talks on gun trafficking with two Republican senators from falling through.
“I don’t think it’s going to pass the Senate,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “But if it passes the Senate, it’s not going to make it to the president’s desk.”