"I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons,"… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Despite its long odds in the full Senate, a federal ban on assault weapons cleared a Democratic-run committee Thursday on a party-line vote.
"I've looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons," the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, told Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues. "How many times does this have to happen?"
The hard work now begins for the California Democrat, who wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban only to see the federal law expire in 2004. She has called passing a new, stronger ban a "life's mission."
Not only did every one of the panel's Republicans vote against the bill, but Feinstein has struggled to line up support among rural-state Democrats, some up for reelection next year.
Feinstein's bill would prohibit the sale, import and manufacture of more than 150 weapons and ammunition magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds. Those who legally own assault weapons — 3.5 million to 4 million people, by one estimate — would be allowed to keep them. Sale of existing weapons would require buyers to undergo background checks.
After the 10-8 committee vote, President Obama urged House and Senate leaders to bring the assault weapons ban and other measures introduced in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting up for a vote.
"These weapons of war, when combined with high-capacity magazines, have one purpose: to inflict maximum damage as quickly as possible," Obama said in a statement. "They are designed for the battlefield, and they have no place on our streets, in our schools, or threatening our law enforcement officers."
The committee has approved bills that would extend background checks for nearly all gun purchases, crack down on gun trafficking and increase funding to beef up school security. But the assault weapons ban faces the steepest climb.
The vote came after Feinstein clashed with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) after he questioned her on the constitutionality of the measure.
"It's fine if you want to lecture me on the Constitution," she shot back. "Just know that I've been here for a long time," citing her 20 years on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans questioned whether the 1994 ban reduced gun violence.
"This legislation has been tried before," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "It really didn't appreciably change things."
He added: "The crooks are going to get the guns. And if you ever find yourself having to meet one of these crooks, I want to make sure you can defend yourself."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the measure "jeopardizes the self-defense rights of law-abiding citizens."
But committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned how much firepower homeowners needed to protect their homes. "I've always been perfectly satisfied with my .45 I have at home," he said.
Republicans called for better enforcement of existing gun laws and stronger efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Feinstein has brought victims of gun violence and law enforcement officers to Capitol Hill in support of her bill, and has spoken about her own experience with gun violence.
"I cannot get out of my mind trying to find a pulse in someone and putting fingers in a bullet hole," she told colleagues Thursday, referring to finding fellow San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk's body in City Hall in 1978 after he and Mayor George Moscone were fatally shot by Dan White, a former supervisor.
Although a recent Pew Research Center poll showed 55% support for an assault weapons ban, other measures, such as expanding background checks to private gun purchases, enjoyed broader support.
"I think people are opening their eyes and beginning to understand that these are weapons of war, that they don't belong on the streets," Feinstein said. She said she hoped the White House would step up its efforts to rally support for the ban.
At the end of the meeting, Feinstein apologized to Cruz. "You sort of got my dander up," she said. "That happens on occasion."