Assault weapons ban passed at heated Senate hearing

March 14, 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill banning almost 160 specific military-style assault weapons Thursday after a heated exchange between senators about the scope of the Second Amendment.

The Democratic-controlled panel approved the bill on a party-line vote of 10 to eight -- all Democrats voted yes, all Republicans voted no.

In addition to banning various rifles, shotguns and parts, the bill would limit the size of ammunition clips to 10 rounds.

The committee's vote Thursday capped a week of debate and the passage of four Democratic-backed proposals to limit gun violence in America, all introduced in the wake of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 elementary school children dead -- and occurred three months ago Thursday.

In addition to the assault weapons ban, the committee approved a bill making the practice of illegally purchasing firearms for someone else a federal crime for the first time, and measures to expand the nation’s gun background check system and a Justice Department program that funds school security plans.

With the committee's work completed, debate over gun control now shifts to the full Senate, where the chamber's divide between liberal, urban-state Democrats and Republicans and moderate Democrats weary of infringing on the rights of gun owners makes passage of the four proposals more difficult.

Despite the odds, Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters Thursday, "I wanted to get these four bills to the floor."

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), admitted the bill's likely defeat: “The road is uphill. I fully understand that.”

But Feinstein, who climbed the political ranks after the assassination of two San Francisco City Hall colleagues, said she remains determined to ban the weapons, because, “I cannot get out of my mind trying to find the pulse in someone and putting my fingers in a bullet hole.”

During the hearing, Feinstein locked into an emotional and heated exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who raised concerns about how the bill might chip away at constitutional protections for gun owners.

Cruz, a lawyer by training and the former solicitor general of Texas, began his comments during the hearing by reviewing the historic origins of the Bill of Rights and then argued that potential restrictions placed on firearms would be like placing restrictions on the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly, or the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Speaking directly to Feinstein, Cruz asked: "Would she deem it consistent with the Bill of Rights for Congress to engage in the same endeavor that we are contemplating doing to the Second Amendment, in the context of the First or Fourth Amendment?"

Visibly angry, Feinstein shot back.

“I’m not a sixth grader," she said. "I’m not a lawyer, but after 20 years I’ve been up close and personal with the Constitution. I have great respect for it."

"It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution, I appreciate it," she continued, staring at Cruz, who glared back at her. "Just know that I’ve been here a long time, I’ve passed a number of bills, I’ve studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well-educated and I thank you for the lecture. Incidentally, this [bill] does not prohibit -- you use the word prohibit -- it exempts 2,271 weapons. Isn’t that enough for the people of the United States? Do they need a bazooka? Do they need other high-powered weapons that other people use in close combat? I don’t think so. So I come from a different place than you do."

As Feinstein spoke, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and other Democrats also stared at Cruz, nodding in agreement with her. She apologized to Cruz for her heated response as the hearing concluded: "You sort of got my dander up," she said.

Cruz said that he respected Feinstein's work on the issue, but said that the Senate's deliberations on gun control "should be driven by facts and the data and by the Constitution, not by passion."

He later told reporters that "it's unfortunate that a question about the constitution provokes such a strenuous response."

Before approving the bill, the committee rejected along party lines four amendments from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) that would have permitted exceptions to the assault weapons ban for residents of counties along the U.S.-Mexican border, residents of rural counties and victims of domestic or sexual violence.

Feinstein said the amendments were a "way to create a nip and a tuck" on her proposed ban.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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