Sen. Dianne Feinstein, shown announcing her plan to introduce an assault-weapons… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — A federal ban on assault weapons cleared a Democratic-run Senate committee Thursday in a party-line vote after its chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) clashed with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over the 2nd Amendment.
“I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons,” Feinstein snapped at Cruz after he questioned her on the Constitution. “It’s fine if you want to lecture me on the Constitution. Just know that I’ve been here for a long time,” citing her 20 years on the Judiciary Committee.
Although the 10-8 vote advanced the bill to the full Senate, the hard work now begins for Feinstein, who wrote the 1994 law only to see it expire in 2004.
Not only did every one of the Judiciary Committee’s Republicans vote against the bill, but Feinstein has struggled to line up support among rural-state Democrats, some of whom are up for reelection next year. “The road is uphill. I fully understand it,” said Feinstein, who recently called the assault weapons ban a “life’s mission for me.”
Feinstein’s bill, which is stronger than the 1994 measure, 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, by one estimate -- would be allowed to keep them. Sale of existing weapons would require buyers to undergo background checks.
Republicans questioned whether the 1994 assault weapons ban reduced gun violence.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the measure “jeopardizes the self-defense rights of law-abiding citizens.” But Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned how much firepower homeowners need 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. “This legislation has been tried before,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It really didn’t appreciably change things.”
“The crooks are going to get the guns,” Graham added. “And if you ever find yourself having to meet one of these crooks, I want to make sure you can defend yourself.”
Feinstein has brought victims of gun violence and law enforcement to Capitol Hill in support of her bill and has spoken about the 1978 killings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk while she was in San Francisco City Hall.
Even so, her bill faces the steepest climb of any of the measures proposed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings that brought gun control back to center stage on Capitol Hill.
The committee has approved bills that would extend background checks for nearly all gun purchases, crack down on gun trafficking and authorize $40 million a year to beef up school security. All are headed to the full Senate.
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,” she said.
Feinstein said she hopes the White House will step up its efforts to win support for the assault weapons ban.
At the end of the meeting, Feinstein apologized to Cruz. “You sort of got my dander up,” she said.
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