WASHINGTON — En route to her Capitol Hill office on Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) flipped through page after page of a long list of high-powered rifles and shotguns--650 in all--that are exempted from her latest proposal to restrict the availability of rapid-fire assault weapons.
The senator glumly acknowledged that her watered-down bill would not remove from the nation's streets any existing grenade launchers or AK-47s, which are capable of firing 30 rounds within a few seconds.
Even with the compromises, Feinstein said, her legislation to stop the sale and manufacture of assault weapons may not pass the Senate this week. The freshman senator is expected to introduce her legislation as an amendment to the crime bill today.
Republicans appear certain to launch a filibuster in an attempt to kill the legislation. Democrats fear that the Feinstein amendment could jeopardize the crime package currently before Congress that would add $22.2 billion in funds for more police officers and prisons.
"This is an eminently reasonable and moderate (bill)," Feinstein told a group of Democratic women supporters on Monday. "If this cannot pass the Senate of the United States, I fear for the streets of America."
While lobbying her colleagues over the last month, Feinstein said, she has not encountered any legitimate arguments against a ban on assault weapons. Instead, Feinstein blames the clout of one group--the National Rifle Assn.--for the lack of widespread support among senators.
"I was amazed to see the degree to which the National Rifle Assn. controls this body," Feinstein said.
Not since 1968, following the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has Congress enacted major legislation to stem the flow of guns in America.
Feinstein's bill bans the sale and manufacture of 14 semiautomatic assault weapons, including the AK-47 and the Colt AR-15, which was used last month by an avowed child-hater in El Cajon to kill a woman and a 9-year-old girl.
California became the first state to prohibit the sale of assault weapons in 1989. Today, only three other states--New Jersey, Connecticut and Hawaii--prohibit over-the-counter sales of assault weapons.
The Feinstein bill goes beyond California restrictions by outlawing both copycat versions of previously banned models and high-volume detachable magazines designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
On July 1, gunman Gian Luigi Ferri used an Intratec TEC-DC-9, a model virtually identical to the TEC-9 assault weapon banned under state law, to kill eight people in a San Francisco office building.
To limit the availability of such weapons, Feinstein sought to forge a compromise between separate proposals offered by retiring Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).
Feinstein dropped language from the Metzenbaum bill that would give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms authority to ban future assault weapons. To accommodate hunting and recreation enthusiasts, she exempted a 14-page list of 650 rifles and shotguns. She also inserted a 10-year sunset clause to satisfy critics who say that the bill would have no impact on crime. If a federal study proves the ban on assault rifles ineffective, the legislation would expire after a decade.
The legislation does not address the current possession of an estimated 1 million assault rifles nationwide.
"Essentially what this legislation does is (create) a freeze," Feinstein said in an interview. "It's not more, it's not less. It would say you cannot manufacture these assault weapons, you cannot sell them and you cannot possess them in the future. It does not in itself take any off the streets. I don't want to kid anybody."
The concessions were necessary, Feinstein said, if she hopes to win 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Gun control advocates applauded Feinstein's efforts to move a ban on assault weapons through the Senate but expressed disappointment that she was forced to make so many compromises.
Jeff Muchnick, legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said prospects for a federal crackdown on firearms are brighter today than in recent years.
"We may not win this vote with Feinstein's bill, but I think we are headed in the right direction," Muchnick said.
In an unsuccessful effort to woo the gun lobby, Feinstein recently met with NRA officials in her Washington office. Both sides said they were unable to find any common ground.
Feinstein criticized the NRA's belief that citizens have a basic right to own any kind of weapon, no matter how potentially dangerous or destructive.
The NRA characterizes any effort to ban semiautomatic weapons as misdirected because the powerful firearms are rarely used in violent crimes and do not inspire criminal activity, said Susan Lamson, NRA director of federal affairs.