WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a measure to reinstate a ban on assault weapons in the first major congressional test of the issue since the law expired in 2004. But the ban remains unlikely to clear the full Senate.
Still, the committee’s passage of the bill, along with three other measures that previously cleared the panel, demonstrated momentum by lawmakers who have sought new gun regulations after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Taken together, the votes show a willingness by lawmakers to confront the pro-gun lobby, which has stifled new gun limits for years. As recently as last year, it would have been unthinkable for these bills to have even been considered in a Senate committee.
But the measures — which include a ban on high-capacity magazines and enhanced background checks for gun buyers — will now be considered by the full Senate, where gun-rights sentiments run far deeper than in the committee, to say nothing of the House, where members are even less avid to take up new gun curbs.
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The renewal of the assault-weapons ban, an earlier version of which was rejected by the full Congress in 2004, even with the tacit support of President George W. Bush, is almost certain to fail in the Senate, should Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, even allow it on the floor.
“The road is uphill. I fully understand that,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of the bill, said after its passage by the committee. “My passion comes from what I’ve seen on the streets. I cannot get out of my mind trying to find the pulse in someone and putting my fingers in a bullet hole.”
Thursday’s vote came three months to the day after Adam Lanza, 20, walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults with an assault rifle before killing himself. He had shot his mother to death before going to the school.
Feinstein’s bill specifically bans 157 named weapons. In an effort to avoid antagonizing those who use them for sports, the measure allows 2,258 rifles and shotguns that are frequently used by hunters. It also exempts any weapons that are lawfully owned whenever the bill is enacted.
Reid said Thursday that he had talked with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who leads the committee, and had promised a vote on some type of bill that considers the committee’s actions, probably by mid-April.
While a complete gun-control plan has not been formulated, it will probably include a limited gun-safety bill focused on stemming gun trafficking and enhancing background checks to compel states to better comply with laws on reporting records regarding criminals and mentally ill people.
But even those measures will not have broad support, and 60 votes will be needed to cut off debate and move to a vote.
Lawmakers will probably work with a measure passed by the committee last week that would make the already illegal practice of buying a gun for someone who is legally barred from having one — known as a straw purchase — a felony and increase penalties for the crime.
This week, the panel passed a measure that would expand the background checks to private gun sales, and another measure to renew a grant program to help schools improve security.
The background-check bill is expected to be substituted or amended by its sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to attract the support of more Republicans. In theory, it is a measure both parties can support, but it is ensnared in a debate over record-keeping that may undermine it on the floor.
The committee vote Thursday to approve the assault weapons ban was 10-8, along party lines.
Material from McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.