December 20, 2012

Associated Press

Today’s New York Times has a terrific piece documenting the history of the ill-fated assault weapons ban of the 1990s. As you know, Dianne Feinstein is planning to reintroduce the ban during the next Congress. That has many “gun rights” types arguing that, hey, the ban never worked that well in the first place. But as the Times story documents very well, that’s because it was more riddled with holes than a paper person target.

Which raises a question that will be central to whether next year’s push for reform will work: What will Democrats do to craft an assault weapons ban that has a better chance of success this time?

A person familiar with the drafting of the bill assures me that it will be more sweeping, in an effort to plug many of the holes that bedeviled the first one. One noteworthy tidbit: The new bill will explicitly name the Bushmaster used in the Newtown shooting as a target.

The reasons for the loopholes in the original bill were highly technical, and turn on the question of how you define an assault weapon. As the Times piece notes, the law defined assault weapons too loosely, which “allowed the industry to continue manufacturing guns similar to those that had been banned.” Also, assault weapons (as defined) and high capacity magazines manufactured before 1994 were exempted from the ban. The Times says that led to more than 1.5 million assault weapons remaining in circulation.

Feinstein’s bill, I’m told, will be more sweeping in its targeting of specific weapons. “This bill would name many more weapons than the original ban did,” the person familiar with drafting tells me. “It would name ones that would be specifically prohibited, including this Bushmaster in Connecticut.”

Gun advocates tell me they are hoping that the eventual version of the assault weapons ban Democrats get behind will resemble the state assault weapons ban in California, which is one of the strictest in the nation. As The Times puts it, the California law forbids “semiautomatic rifles and pistols with easy-to-reload, detachable magazines, if they also have just one other military-style accessory.” The Times notes that would be stricter than the old federal standard, which defined an assault weapon as having a detachable magazine and at least two other military-style features.

Details of Feinstein’s bill are scarce, because it’s early days. But a key question will be how the drafters of the bill — and how the White House’s inter-agency group, headed by Joe Biden — learn from the failures of the last bill. The drive by Dems to plug the old law’s gaping loopholes — and the definition of what an assault weapon is — will also be a major flashpoint in the inevitable political battle with “gun rights” groups and the industry that is set to unfold. Keep an eye on this.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.