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.”
U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh said the case for the bill is bolstered by evidence that in the Aurora theater shooting 10 of the 12 deceased were hit by an assault weapon, one by shotgun rounds, and one by both.
“I think that the point of today’s hearing and really the thrust and concern of the department’s position on this subject is that an AR-15 is a very dangerous weapon,” Walsh said.
Graham said it was important to discuss gun control “in light of the world as it is, rather than the world we’d like it to be.”
The senator noted 2.5 percent of U.S. homicides in 2011 were committed by a rifle of any type. Twice as many people were killed with bare hands.
“How many prosecutions have you taken upon yourself, or how many prosecutions have you taken up for failing a background check since you’ve been U.S. attorney?” Graham asked Walsh.
“Senator, off the top of my head, I’m not aware of any that we’ve done in the District of Colorado,” Walsh replied.
“What I want to do is put into the record the federal background check form,” Graham continued. “It says up top you’re subject to prosecution if you provide false information. How many cases have you referred to state prosecutions?”
“Senator, I don’t have a specific number on that. But if I may, I do think it’s important to recognize where our focus is. Our focus is on prosecuting criminals…”
“Clearly your focus is not on prosecuting people who fail background checks. Would you agree with that?” Graham asked.
“I don’t disagree with it, Senator,” Walsh conceded.
“When almost 80,000 people fail a background check, and 44 people are prosecuted, what kind of deterrent is that?” said Graham. “I mean, the law obviously has not seen that as important.”
Flynn flatly said those prosecutions — or lack of — don’t matter.
“It’s a paper thing. I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally. That’s what a background check does. If you think we’re going to do paperwork prosecutions, you’re wrong,” the police chief said, his voicing rising to the point of shouting.
Feinstein cautioned Graham to “keep it civil” as he pressed the witnesses on background checks.
“But being civil and being firm in your convictions are not inconsistent, are they?” Graham said before getting Flynn to admit they don’t bring those cases.
“We have priorities. We make gun cases. We make 2,000 gun cases a year, Senator. That’s our priority. We’re not in a paper chase,” Flynn said. “We’re trying to prevent the wrong people buying guns. That’s why we do background checks. If you think I’m going to do a paper chase, then you think I’m going to misuse my resources.”
“How many cases have you had turned over from the U.S. attorney to prosecute at the state level that you know of?” Graham pressed.
“We all know the answer to these questions, Senators,” Flynn said, visibly irritated. “They’re self-answering. We don’t chase paper. We chase armed criminals.”
“Well, I guess the point is, if we don’t want the wrong people to own guns, which we all agree, then the one way to do that is to take the system that’s supposed to distinguish between the person who should and shouldn’t, and enforce it,” Graham said.
The senator said it’s “really about who has the gun sometimes more than the gun itself” and stressed that he, like owners of four million other AR-15s in this country, passed the background check.
“And you may not understand why I want to own an AR-15. And I may not understand what movies you want to watch. But we’re talking about trying to solve a problem that has, as its central core, that the people who are committing these crimes should never have any gun, or one bullet. That’s what we all agree on,” Graham said. “And the best way to prevent crazy people, mentally unstable people from getting a weapon, is to identify them somehow before they murder somebody, they steal it, or they try to buy one.”
Feinstein followed up the hearing with an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan.
“Weapons that are designed to kill large numbers of people in close combat don’t belong on the streets of our cities,” she said. “…A crime scene with these weapons isn’t like it’s on TV. There’s blood and matter just spread all over the place. It’s terrible and people, just their bodies, get hacked apart.”