WASHINGTON – Democrats pushed an assault weapons ban through a Senate committee on Thursday and toward its likely doom on the floor after a debate that underscored the deep feelings on both sides.
Exactly three months after 26 children and educators were gunned down in Newtown, Conn., the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure on a party-line 10-8 vote. The bill would also bar ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds.
Thursday’s vote marked the fourth gun control measure the committee has approved in a week and shifted the spotlight to the full Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will decide soon how to bring the measures to the chamber for debate next month.
“Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. He said that despite gun-rights advocates’ claims, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is not at risk, but “lives are at risk” unless lawmakers can figure out how to keep firearms away from dangerous people.
The other bills would require federal background checks on more would-be gun buyers, make it easier for authorities to prosecute illegal gun traffickers and boost school safety aid.
In a written statement, President Obama thanked senators “for taking another step forward in our common effort to help reduce gun violence” and said Congress should vote on all the proposals. He said assault weapons “are designed for the battlefield, and they have no place on our streets, in our schools, or threatening our law enforcement officers.”
Barring assault weapons was part of Obama’s plan for reducing gun violence. But banning the high-powered weapons has encountered strong opposition from congressional Republicans and elicited little enthusiasm among moderate Democratic senators up for re-election next year in GOP-leaning states in the West and South.
The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and her supporters say the ban would help eliminate the type of firearms and magazines that have been used with deadly effect at Newtown and several other recent mass shootings. Opponents say barring the guns would violate the right to bear arms and have little overall impact because assault weapons are involved in small percentages of gun crimes.
At one point Thursday, Feinstein responded angrily after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked if she would also support limiting the First Amendment’s freedom of speech by denying its protection to some books.
“I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years” and studied the issue for a long time, she told Cruz. She later added: “It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here a long time.”
Cruz, an outspoken conservative freshman, answered, “Nobody doubts her sincerity and her passion and yet at the same time, I’d note she chose not to answer the question.”
“The answer is obvious — no,” Feinstein said later.