Senate Democrats pushed the broadest gun ban in decades through the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, voting to halt sales of military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in what's likely to be the high-water mark for gun control after December's Newtown, Conn., shooting spree.
Now that bill and three other gun control measures head to the Senate floor and gun control advocates shift to defense, trying to preserve as much of their gains as they can in a showdown likely to be just as emotional and heated as the committee debate.
"The road is uphill. I fully understand it," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who wrote the gun-ban bill, said just ahead of the 10-8 party-line vote that cleared the bill through the committee. But she challenged her colleagues to ask themselves how they could make the country safer in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took place exactly three months earlier, claiming 28 lives, including 20 children.
"When we hear the testimony from the emergency physicians about what those bullets did inside the bodies of those children, it is a very sobering picture," she said. "I mean, I cannot get out of my mind trying to find a pulse in someone and putting fingers in bullet holes. I cannot get out of my mind walking into a crime and seeing the brain matter all over, the carnage, and seeing these massive attacks continue."
Republicans, equally fervent, wondered about the crime victims who might no longer have access to a weapon or magazine powerful enough to stop a crime.
"If the real objective is reducing violent crime, we should be devoting our crime to far more effective steps," said Sen. Ted Cruz, a freshman Republican from Texas. "We should be devoting our time to laws that target violent criminals. We should be devoting our time to laws that improve the [instant] background check."
The Judiciary Committee, stacked with liberal Democrats, was fairly easy sledding for the bills compared to the Senate floor, where Democrats will be less united.
Even still, Mrs. Feinstein's bill wouldn't have made it out of the committee without an extra boost from Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who said that he wasn't 100 percent behind it but didn't want to bottle it up in the committee. If he had voted against the bill, it would have died on a 9-9 vote.
"I have some concerns about some aspects of it, but I feel this is a matter of such importance it should be voted on by the whole Senate, not just this committee, so I will vote to support her bill as it is before us," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he'll sit down with Mr. Leahy and work out one bill to be the vehicle for a Senate debate.
That decision will be critically important — whatever bill is brought to the floor will be the basis for debate, and it will likely take 60 votes to add or subtract anything from that legislation.
The semiautomatic ban now joins three other bills the panel approved earlier this month — one to boost funding for school safety, another to crack down on gun-trafficking and straw purchases for those not supposed to own weapons, and a third to expand background checks to almost every gun transaction.
The background check and gun-ban bills are the most contentious, and promise to spark furious battles on the Senate floor — and on the House floor, if they get that far.
For the past decade, there has been an unofficial moratorium on gun legislation in Congress as Democrats, afraid of the electoral power of the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment supporters, shied away from action.
But December's shooting at Sandy Hook broke through the calcification and spurred President Obama and gun control supporters in Congress to try again — most notably with their effort to renew the so-called assault weapons ban, which prohibited the sale of many semiautomatic rifles between its passage in 1994 and its expiration in 2004.
"These weapons of war, when combined with high capacity magazines, have one purpose: to inflict maximum damage as quickly as possible," Mr. Obama said after Thursday's committee vote. "They are designed for the battlefield, and they have no place on our streets, in our schools, or threatening our law enforcement officers."
Mrs. Feinstein's bill would reinstitute and tighten the original assault weapons ban. It applies to semiautomatic rifles that have add-ons such as detachable stocks, barrel shrouds or pistol grips, and to rifles or pistols that can accept magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Sales of automatic rifles are already generally banned under federal law and some states have varyingly written bans on semiautomatic assault weapons.
After the Sandy Hook shooting, other states have moved to pass tighter controls, including Connecticut, where the rampage took place.
On Thursday, the president of one of the nation's oldest gun manufacturers closed down his factory in the Nutmeg State and bused 400 of his workers to the Connecticut Capitol so they could personally lobby against new gun control legislation they said would cost them their livelihood, according to The Associated Press.
Thursday's debate was both broad and heated, with weighty constitutional questions at stake.
At one point, Mr. Cruz, a lawyer who has argued a major gun case before the Supreme Court, asked Mrs. Feinstein whether Congress could write legislation that placed limits on what books were legal under the First Amendment.
She prickled at the question, telling him not to treat her like a "sixth-grader."
"I've looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I've seen the bullets that implode. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered," she said. "I'm reasonably well educated. Thank you for the lecture."
She said her bill specifically approved the sale of 2,271 types of firearms, and she wondered why anyone would need some other weapon not included.
Mrs. Feinstein said Congress' job is to pass laws, and said she thinks her bill would survive Supreme Court scrutiny, though she said it's the justices' job to make that final decision.
"If they strike down the law, they strike down the law," she said.
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