In Senate, Assault Weapons Are Complicated

Fawn Johnson

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote Thursday approving an assault-weapons ban was a sham—if you think the purpose was to ban assault weapons. If you think the committee’s vote offered an opportunity for lawmakers to parse and deliberate complicated and unresolved questions about the Constitution, guns, and violence, then it was a highly productive 90 minutes.

“I think it’s good. I think it’s important that people vote on it. I think it’s important that all Americans know where people stand on this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the bill’s sponsor, said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to finding floor time for gun legislation, although he has not yet said what the starting point for the floor vote would be. The “base bill” is unlikely to be the assault-weapons ban. Both Reid and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are expected to be “no” votes on that one, while their stances on background checks or limiting high-capacity magazine clips are still up in the air.

Feinstein, D-Calif., is well aware that her proposal to outlaw some assault-style, semi-automatic weapons has almost no chance of passing the Senate. But that isn’t the point. Since the Newtown, Conn., massacre last year, the point has always been to see how far the gun-control crowd can push the gun-rights folks toward regulating guns.

Roll-call votes—lots of them—wouldn’t be bad for the National Rifle Association either. “They wouldn’t be upset about a roll call vote in both [the House and the Senate]. That would be the premier vote in 2014,” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and former National Rifle Association official.

The Judiciary Committee’s deliberations were a warm-up for the floor. Feinstein got a chance to speak passionately about the need to make assault-style weapons less prevalent. “I cannot get out of my mind walking into a building and seeing the brain matter all over, the carnage,” she said, referring to her 1978 experience finding the murdered body of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, made a point of highlighting the “absurdity” of Feinstein’s bill by offering several amendments carving out exceptions—for rural residents, residents near the U.S.-Mexico border, women victims of domestic violence, and recipients of protection orders. Even if any of Cornyn’s amendments had passed (they didn’t), he still would have had no intention of voting for the assault-weapons ban. His theatrics in committee were “designed to show the flawed logic in their bill,” said Cornyn spokeswoman Megan Mitchell. “Why have exemption for retired police officers, but not for veterans? Why not victims of domestic violence, et cetera?”

The exemption for retired police officers was a compromise, Feinstein explained, in some ways giving fuel to Cornyn’s argument. “Generally, they do retain their weapons. Obviously, in the crafting of the bill we made certain compromises,” she said.

She was less polite about an assertion from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that banning assault weapons is akin to banning certain books under the First Amendment. “I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years. I’ve been a mayor for nine years.... I have studied the Constitution myself.”

But that fire died quickly. Leahy was thrilled with the work of the committee. All told, the panel produced four gun-violence bills just three months after the Newtown shooting. Two of them—the assault-weapons ban and an expansion of background checks—are major pieces of legislation. Two of them—strengthening gun-trafficking laws and reviving federal school-safety grants—are less sweeping, but they have bipartisan support and could make it to the White House.

The comity in the committee was surprising, given the historic nature of the vote on a highly controversial issue. Getting the gun package into Reid’s court for floor votes only took three executive sessions. The opponents were firm but polite about allowing the bills to go through. Cornyn, for example, limited his messaging amendments in the interest of time. Cruz reserved the largest portion of his speech on constitutionality until after the committee vote, allowing other members to leave.

The floor debate won’t be as friendly as the committee markup. Leahy voted for the assault-weapons ban in committee with the express purpose of getting it to the floor—and not because he favors it. Republicans avoided using delaying tactics that would keep the legislation mired at the committee level.

The base bill for the Senate floor will probably be something noncontroversial, such as the gun-trafficking measure. But as soon as the amendments start pouring in, it will be a different story. There is likely no way the full Senate can escape a vote on an assault-weapons ban then.