Democrats Move To Reinstate Assault Weapons Ban

The Senate held its first hearing on an assault weapons ban Wednesday, with activists pushing for tighter gun regulations sharing a table with gun-rights activists. They are seizing on public outrage over the December gun massacre at a school in Connecticut.

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A hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday included tears, cheers and a recording of bursts of gunfire. It was all part of a new push by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, a ban that expired nearly a decade ago.

NPR's David Welna was there.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein who 20 years ago fought for and won a decade-long ban on assault-style rifles and high capacity ammunition magazines. Congress was in no mood to renew the law when it lapsed in 2004. But Feinstein is now leading a drive to restore that ban, seizing on public outrage over the December gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Feinstein said yesterday Congress was wrong not to have renewed the assault weapons ban.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: 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.

WELNA: To illustrate how easy it is now to add a simple device to a semi-automatic rifle that turns it into a virtual machine gun, Feinstein showed a video at the judiciary panel hearing she chaired.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FEINSTEIN: You see this bump fire slide working as it mimics a fully automatic weapon.

WELNA: At the witness table, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said the U.S. Conference of Mayors he heads fully endorses Feinstein's bill banning assault weapons once again.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: No one has ever been able to explain why a civilian should have a military-style assault weapon for anything other than the military or law enforcement. I've never heard a legitimate explanation.

(APPLAUSE)

WELNA: That prompted a question from South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who declared himself the proud owner of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mayor, what percentage of violent deaths involving a firearm in your city are a result of handguns versus rifles, do you know?

WELNA: For Nutter, that was beside the point.

NUTTER: Handgun, rifle, shotgun, dead is dead.

GRAHAM: Well...

NUTTER: And that's what's being experienced in our cities all across America.

GRAHAM: I couldn't agree with you more. But the reason we have hearings like this is to try to paint the picture for America of the problem we're trying to solve.

NUTTER: Right.

GRAHAM: And I don't know what percentage of deaths are caused by rifles in Philadelphia, but I know nationally it's 2.5 percent.

WELNA: Graham's effort to downplay the deaths caused by rifles did not sit well with another witness. Newtown, Connecticut emergency room director William Begg said some may say the overall number of deaths from assault weapons is relatively small.

DR. WILLIAM BEGG: But you know what? Please don't tell that to the people of Tucson, or Aurora, or Columbine or Virginia Tech. And don't tell that to the people of Newtown.

(APPLAUSE)

WELNA: Sitting next to Begg at the witness table was Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary.

NEIL HESLIN: I'm Jesse Lewis's dad. Jesse was brutally murdered...

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

HESLIN: ...Sandy Hook school on December 14th, 20 minutes after I dropped him off.

WELNA: Heslin implored the senators seated before him to ban the kinds of weapons and high capacity magazines used to murder his only child. But Iowa's Chuck Grassley, who's the panel's top Republican, raised concerns about the constitutionality of such a ban. What's more, he said, there's no evidence the last assault weapons ban worked.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: When something has been tried and found not to work, we should try different approaches rather than reenacting that which hasn't done the job.

WELNA: Grassley added that while Congress will legislate on guns, it will likely be on issues such as gun trafficking and mental health.

As the hearing ended, Feinstein seemed to acknowledge her bill's slim odds.

FEINSTEIN: With a little bit of help from the people of America, we might even be able to pass that. It's an uphill job all the way.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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