By Heidi Przybyla & Julie Hirschfeld Davis
A proposed ban on sales of assault weapons would be defeated in the U.S. Senate unless some lawmakers changed their current views, based on a Bloomberg review of recent lawmaker statements and interviews.
At least six of the 55 senators in the Democratic caucus have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to a ban, the review found. That means Democrats wouldn’t have a 51-vote majority to pass the measure, let alone the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster to bring it to a floor vote.
A ban on the military-style weapons is among the legislative goals President Barack Obama outlined in his recommendations to Congress on curbing gun violence after the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut. Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday it will take “persuasion and information” to gain the necessary support to enact the White House package.
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“We have an obligation to act — not wait,” Biden told reporters after a more than two-hour roundtable at Virginia Commonwealth University to discuss the administration’s push for new gun-safety measures.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California unveiled on Jan. 24 legislation to outlaw sales of assault-style weapons during a news briefing where shooting survivors, some of them with bullets still lodged in their bodies, urged its passage.
At that event, Feinstein said it’s unclear whether the fight is winnable. “We don’t know, it’s so uphill,” she said. “It depends on the courage of Americans.”
New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy, who lost her husband in a 1993 shooting on a Long Island Rail Road train, said recent events have spurred a fresh start on the issue.
“We’re only at the beginning of our nation’s conversation about gun violence,” McCarthy said by e-mail. “There’s no way to know where the American people’s anger and frustration with” the Connecticut shooting “will ultimately take lawmakers.”
The five Democratic senators from traditionally pro-gun states who have expressed skepticism about the bill are Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, also said he opposes a ban.
Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who supported similar legislation in 2004, has indicated she is unlikely to back the proposed ban in its current form.
In his comments yesterday, Biden made no mention of an assault weapons ban, and on Jan. 24 he downplayed its importance.
“I’m much less concerned, quite frankly, about what you call an assault weapon ban than I am about magazines and the number of rounds that can be held in a magazine,” Biden said.
The 1994 assault weapons ban, signed by President Bill Clinton, expired in 2004 and, until the shooting in Newtown, there’s been little effort in Congress to restore it.
The new legislation prohibits the sale or transfer of 158 of the most commonly owned military-style assault weapons. It would exempt all such guns legally possessed before passage of the law and exclude more than 2,200 hunting and sporting rifles.
Baucus, in a Jan. 16 statement, said that “before passing new laws, we need a thoughtful debate that respects responsible, law-abiding gun owners in Montana instead of a one-size-fits-all directive from Washington.”
“The answer isn’t simply in limiting guns,” said Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for Tester. The senator also told a newspaper in Missoula, Montana, that an assault weapons ban wouldn’t have stopped the shootings in Newtown.
Begich said he was “not interested” in a ban, during a Jan. 10 conference call with reporters. “I don’t believe that we need to pile on new laws and suddenly that solves all the problems,” he said.
Manchin told CNN on Jan. 13 that “an assault weapons stand-alone ban on just guns alone will not, in the political reality that we have today, will not go anywhere.”
Heitkamp, referring to the Connecticut shooting, told North Dakota’s KXMB-TV and KXMC-TV on Jan. 15 that “there isn’t any amount of gun regulation or gun executive orders that will solve the problem of identifying people who could potentially do this and making sure they get the help and their families get the help so they don’t do this.”
Scott Ogden, a spokesman for King, said the senator “remains skeptical” about an assault weapons ban, though he was waiting for more details.
Collins is concerned that the proposed legislation is “far broader in the kinds of rifles that would be banned than was the case in the law in effect between 1994 and 2004,” said her spokesman, Kevin Kelley.
Further dimming prospects for the assault weapon ban, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, both Democrats, voted against extending the previous ban in 2004. Neither has made any public statements since Newtown indicating a change in their positions.
Feinstein will be relying on survivor testimonials, along with images of the slain Sandy Hook students, most of them 6- year-olds, to push these Democrats to reconsider their opposition.
“The message to Democrats is, ‘See what your silence does?’” Feinstein told reporters. “There will be more of these. These won’t end.”
“If just reading the list of beautiful names and looking into the eyes of some of the pictures of the children slain doesn’t do something to the conscience of America, nothing I can say or do will,” she said.
The vote shortage for a ban may prompt Democrats to focus on another major goal that is also part of the Feinstein bill: banning high-capacity magazines that have been used in many of the U.S. shootings over the past decade to fire off numerous bullets in a matter of seconds from autoloading guns.
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced separate legislation on Jan. 22 to ban the manufacture and sale of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
In the Tucson, Arizona, shooting two years ago that severely injured former Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner fired 31 bullets in 15 seconds from a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. He was tackled while reloading. An assault rifle with a 100-round magazine was among the weapons alleged gunman James Holmes used to kill 12 and wound 58 in July 2012 at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
Mark Kelly, Giffords’s husband and a gun-control advocate, will testify at a Jan. 30 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the panel’s chairman, announced yesterday. Kelly will be joined by witnesses including Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, which opposes new restrictions.
Some of the lawmakers skeptical of the assault-weapons ban did express support for a prohibition on high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets, as well increased background checks for firearm purchases.
“Congress must act to implement magazine capacity restrictions,” King spokesman Ogden said in a statement.
King is also “generally supportive of expanded background checks,” Ogden said.
Collins “supports a reasonable limitation on the number of rounds of ammunition in a magazine,” spokesman Kelley said.
Biden, who Obama tapped to develop recommendations for action after the Connecticut shooting, said there would be more trips outside of Washington to discuss the issue. Yesterday, he called the Newtown massacre “a national tragedy and a window into a vulnerability people feel about their safety and the safety of their children.”
The White House’s campaign-style effort is designed to build political pressure on Congress to take action.
“I have no illusions about what needs to be done and how difficult it will be,” Biden said in an e-mail sent yesterday to Obama supporters. “Each one of us needs to speak up and demand action,” he wrote, concluding: “Let’s get this done.”
The private roundtable Biden conducted in Virginia included cabinet officials, Democratic lawmakers, and members of the state-appointed review board that investigated the 2007 shooting that killed 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known as Virginia Tech, in the deadliest gun massacre in U.S. history.
That incident prompted passage of a 2008 law improving state reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, aimed at barring criminals or mentally ill individuals from obtaining guns.
Biden said the group discussed the need for strengthening that system and implementing universal background checks with better and timelier information from states. He said they also talked about the “woefully inadequate” number of trained mental-health professionals available around the country.
Manchin told a West Virginia radio interviewer Jan. 24 that he is working with senators of both parties to require most gun purchasers, including those at weapons shows, to undergo checks.
“If you’re going to be a gun owner, you should have a background check and be able to pass a background check,” he said. Exceptions should be made in cases where a gun is transferred from one family member to another, and when a weapon is being obtained for use at a sporting event.
Manchin said private sellers at gun shows have an “unfair advantage” because they don’t have to perform background checks while a licensed dealer does.