Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee argued Tuesday that a balance exists between enacting new gun laws and protecting the Second Amendment, while Republicans cautioned that any ban on so-called assault weapons treads dangerously on the U.S. Constitution — an ideological divide seared into the current gun debate that hard-liners on both sides are unlikely to cross.
Much of Tuesday's subcommittee hearing was spent parsing interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which affirmed Americans' rights to possess a firearm for self-defense — a ruling that also placed an outer limit on the Second Amendment, argued Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
"Justice [Antonin] Scalia, no liberal, Justice Scalia, writing for the court's conservative majority, made clear that the Second Amendment right is, quote, 'not unlimited,' closed quote, and that, like other rights, it is subject to reasonable regulation," said Mr. Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and the ranking member on the committee, repeatedly grilled U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy about the Heller decision, asking what specific levels of scrutiny should be placed on a proposed ban on assault weapons.
Mr. Heaphy, an appointee of President Obama as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said he was not familiar enough with the case to provide an opinion, but that the Department of Justice supports a ban and will work to ensure it is constitutional if Congress passes one.
"So without opining on a specific measure of one of the bills, whether it is or isn't constitutional, I believe that there are ways to regulate guns, respectful of the Second Amendment, but provide reasonable restrictions," Mr. Heaphy said.
But attorney Charles J. Cooper, who worked in President Reagan's Justice Department, said even magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and firearms "are by any reasonable measure in quite common use in the United States. Because [a ban] outlaws firearms and standard magazines that are of the kind in common use for lawful purposes, it is unconstitutional."
"I don't think that a law-abiding individual has a right to an M-16 even in his home," Mr. Cooper said. "But it is my view that, within the universe of arms, there are certain arms that are absolutely protected. And you can't completely disarm an individual in his home. Heller, if it stands for nothing else, it stands for that."
Mr. Durbin's hearing on gun violence and the Second Amendment before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights came roughly two weeks after the Senate Judiciary Committee's first full hearing on gun control during the 113th Congress.
The December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has prompted Mr. Obama to propose a sweeping package of gun controls, including a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and universal background checks on all gun purchases.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a member of the committee, said Tuesday that nearly 900 mayors across the country support her proposal to ban assault weapons, citing a letter delivered to congressional leaders by the gun control advocacy group Mayors for Illegal Guns.
The proposed ban, along with restrictions on high-capacity magazines, is widely acknowledged to be the most politically tenuous part of any gun control package. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has walked a fine line on the issue since Newtown, but has pledged to bring a bill on gun violence to the Senate floor and allow members to offer amendments.
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