For the briefest moment on Capitol Hill today gun control crept back onstage as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) led an emotional hearing on her latest attempt to renew the assault weapons ban.
Feinstein, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in lieu of Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), banged the gavel several times during the course of the hearing to chide a gallery of supporters that would break out into applause at witness statements. A father of a boy killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting clutched a framed photo of his son and propped up two more poster-size photos as he wept during his testimony. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), again proudly declaring his ownership of an AR-15, tangled with gun-control advocates over current enforcement of background checks.
Still, by the second panel of witnesses few members of the committee were left on the dais, as a busy day of hearings and caucus powwows pulled members in different direction.
After a closed policy luncheon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that the assault weapons ban may move from discussion to floor action before too long. Reid said he had an “extended conversation” with Leahy on Tuesday, and the chairman is trying to decide how best to proceed.
“He will come up with a bill or bills. Any one of those bills — I can only bring one of them to the floor — and at that time it’s brought to the floor, if people don’t have in it what they want or they want to take out something that’s in it that they don’t like, they should have the opportunity to offer amendments in that regard,” Reid said. “That’s how I’m going to handle it.”
Feinstein asked gun violence victims from Newtown, Aurora and Virginia Tech to stand at the beginning of the hearing, as well as law enforcement officers in favor of renewing the 10-year ban that expired in 2004.
“Since the ban expired, over 350 people have been killed with assault weapons. Over 450 have been wounded. And the weapons are even more lethal today than they were in 2004,” she said. “…The bill will not take away any weapons that anybody owns today. Anyone who says otherwise is simply trying to deceive you. Instead, the bill grandfathers weapons legally possessed on the date of enactment.”
Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he respects Feinstein’s “very sincere” and “very consistent” views on gun control.
“I happen to have a different view. S. 150 bans guns based solely on their appearance. Some of those cosmetic features are useful for self-defense. Others have nothing to do with functioning of the weapons,” Grassley said. “As a result, the bill would ban some guns that are less powerful, dangerous, and that inflict less severe wounds than others that are exempt. Such arbitrary distinctions and the fact that these weapons are commonly used for self-defense raise constitutional questions under the Second Amendment.”
Particularly up for challenge would be the 10-round magazine limitation, he said, adding that the existing gun laws have served to tilt the scale in favor of criminals who use guns.
“Nationally, only 1 percent of the people, 62 out of 4,732, who were denied guns based on background checks were prosecuted for illegally attempting to acquire firearms. That is much too low of a rate, so let’s see what can be done and accomplished by enforcing laws on the books before adding new ones of questionable effectiveness,” Grassley said.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn brushed off a self-defense argument, saying “the notion that innocent law abiding citizens will use an assault weapon or a high capacity firearm to protect themselves is not our experience.” In fact, he characterized most crime victims in his city as criminals.
“Ninety-seven percent of our suspects and 82 percent of our victims have criminal histories,” Flynn said of Milwaukee homicides. “Furthermore, our experience indicates that the vast majority of our home invasion victims are drug dealers. They do not need semiautomatic rifles to protect themselves.”
Flynn added that an “intellectually honest” discussion of Feinstein’s bill would note “the issues raised here have more to do with commerce than they do with the Second Amendment. A lot of people make a lot of money selling firearms and ammunition.”
“Now, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it can tempt us to search for and grasp onto false logic. The bill being discussed here today places reasonable restrictions on future sales of certain types of firearms and magazines,” he said. “…It prevents the preventable. It’s time for Congress to pick a side.”