Senate to drop assault weapons ban in face of bipartisan opposition
Majority leader Harry Reid says 'most optimistic numbers' on Feinstein ban show less support than needed to initiate debate
Ewen MacAskill in Washington; guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 19 March 2013 18.07 EDTt
A move to ban military-style assault weapons in the wake of the Newtown shooting was effectively abandoned by the Senate on Tuesday, in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun groups.
The Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, announced that the ban will not be included in a Senate bill due to be published later this week. Reid told reporters the ban did not have the support of enough members to get it through the Senate. Although senators will be given a chance to vote on the ban in an amendment next month, this is purely a courtesy. Its excision from the bill is an admission that it stands no chance.
After the Newtown school shooting in December, in which 20 children and six staff were killed, president Barack Obama and some members of Congress, mainly Democrats, urged an overhaul of the country's gun laws, hoping a national wave of revulsion would result in reform.
But the NRA opposed any changes and instead proposed stepping up security in schools. The White House, acknowledging the difficulties facing it in Congress, proposed a relatively modest reform programme, including a ban on automatic weapons that can fire dozens of bullets a minute. But even that limited programme is now being chopped back.
The automatic weapons ban was backed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a long-time advocate of gun reform whose views are influenced by her being among the first people to find the body of the gay rights champion and elected official Harvey Milk, who was shot in San Francisco in 1978. She held a hearing on the proposed automatic weapons ban last month, at which one of the parents of the children killed in the Newtown shooting, Neil Heslin, testified emotionally about his six-year-old son, Jesse. Senior police officers also spoke in favour of the ban.
The ban would have covered 157 types of military-style assault weapons, as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines. It excluded 2,200 legitimate hunting and sporting rifles. Asked about removal of the ban from the bill, Feinstein said on Tuesday: "I very much regret it. I tried my best."
She told CBS: "You know the enemies on this are very powerful. I've known that all my life, my adult life in the political arena certainly."
Reid told reporters that he could not secure support for Feinstein's ban among 40 senators, never mind the 60 that would have been needed to overcome a filibuster in the 100-strong chamber. The Democrats have 53 members, plus two independents who normally vote with them. Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the ban but so too is a large bloc of Democrats, either out of principle or fear of alienating gun-owners in their states.
Reid, who is from Nevada and is himself a long-time supporter of gun rights, said: "Right now her amendment using the most optimistic numbers has less than 40 votes. That's not 60. I have to get something on the floor so we can have votes on that issue and the other issues we talked about."
A proposal to limited the size of ammunition magazines seems likely to fall along with the automatic weapons ban. But some Democrats are planning to push it to a vote in the hope that, without the weapons ban, more senators might be prepared to back limits on ammunition magazines. Proposals to toughen up background checks for gun sales remain in the bill, though that measure is also being attacked. There is bipartisan support for tougher penalties for gun trafficking and there is also a proposal for better school security. At least five Republicans would need to join Democrats in order to get the bill on to the floor of the Senate, in order for debate to begin.
Even if a bill eventually makes it through the Senate, it would come up against opposition in the Republican-run House, where hostility towards almost any gun reforms is entrenched.