After Newtown, Democrats Propose an Assault-Weapons Ban

Gun-control advocates have repeatedly tried and failed to raise the 1994 ban from the dead. Today they argued that this time could be different but acknowledged there’s a good chance it won’t be

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 24, 2013, to introduce legislation on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition-feeding devices

Democratic lawmakers, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein, held an elaborate, emotional press conference today to announce a new assault-weapons-ban proposal. The bill, to be introduced concurrently in the Senate and House, is an updated version of the 1994 ban that expired in 2004. Gun-control advocates have repeatedly tried and failed to raise the ban from the dead since then. Today they made arguments about why this time could be different, while acknowledging that there’s a good chance it won’t be.

The new bill, propelled by the December shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults, proposes to ban the sale, manufacture, transfer or importation of 157 specific models of guns. Bans would also apply to magazines containing more than 10 rounds, as well as categories of firearms that meet a threshold of red-flag features. Legislators repeatedly pointed out that the bill also excludes more than 2,200 specific firearms, a measure meant to appease the sporting community — and ward off allegations that this is an overbroad liberal assault on Second Amendment rights.

The room where Feinstein outlined the proposal was stuffed with symbolism. Rows of assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips were strapped to display boards beside the lectern, including models used in the Tucson and Newtown shootings. Police officers, dressed in stars and caps, filled the front rows and stood silently behind the speakers for more than an hour. A clergyman from the National Cathedral sat alongside the Senators; he opened the press conference with a prayer and the assertion that “the gun lobby is no match for the church lobby.” Seven members of Congress then had their say.

Feinstein, who authored the 1994 ban, argued that this time would be different because the bill cuts out loopholes and eliminates workarounds. Unlike the 1994 ban, there is no sunset date. In 1994, semiautomatic guns had to have two red-flag features, such as pistol grips or threaded barrels, to be banned; this bill requires only one, in hopes that it would be harder to modify guns to avoid regulation. While assault weapons already out there would be allowed to remain, as in 1994, all sales of existing assault weapons would require background checks. “No gun is taken from anyone,” Feinstein said. “The purpose is to dry up the supply.”

That’s a taller order, because millions of people have already taken advantage of that supply. There are more than 300 million firearms in the U.S. and likely millions of assault weapons among them. And as with every push for gun control, outspoken calls for reform have been accompanied by gun owners clearing out cases at sporting-goods stores. The exceptions and unclear definitions in the 1994 law muted its force, and workarounds would inevitably be found again. More important, while legislators promised that such a law would have curtailed recent mass shootings, there’s no definitive evidence that it would have.

Most of the lawmakers made emotional appeals about the devastation of mass shootings rather than practical points about the updated bill. With watery eyes, legislators from Connecticut told stories about the shell-shocked town, bereaved parents and “unbelievably sad parade of funerals,” as Representative Elizabeth Esty said. “This has been a very lonely battle for many, many years,” said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, who has authored multiple failed gun-control bills and is sponsoring this bill in the House. “Newtown made a difference.”

The remarks also contained a prebuttal to arguments that the powerful gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association, will make. McCarthy argued that mass shooters aren’t sophisticated enough to get the banned guns on the black market. No law will stop all the gun violence, Senator Chuck Schumer conceded, but it can save lives. Of course people have a right to own guns, he said, but there’s no “inalienable right to own and operate 100-round clips.”

The NRA was ready with a response on Thursday. “Senator Feinstein has been trying to ban guns from law-abiding citizens for decades,” said a statement posted on its website. “It’s disappointing but not surprising that she is once again focused on curtailing the Constitution instead of prosecuting criminals or fixing our broken mental-health system. The American people know gun bans do not work and we are confident Congress will reject Senator Feinstein’s wrongheaded approach.”