Liberal Democrats are pushing legislation to ban assault weapons, hoping to flex their muscles with the new House majority to revive the controversial prohibition on military-style firearms that expired 15 years ago.
The effort by progressives will pose a challenge for House Democratic leaders and test how far they are willing to go when it comes to gun control. Party leaders have made clear they intend to tackle gun reform early this year but plan on prioritizing a background check bill that enjoys bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill and the overwhelming support of voters nationwide.
Yet a large and growing group of liberal Democrats is eyeing bolder reforms, pressing colleagues this week to sign on to an assault weapons ban that’s less popular with the public and risks highlighting internal divisions.
For many progressives, the background check expansion is just the start of a more comprehensive approach that would include a ban on military-style weapons.
“I think that we can do both, and I think there’s more of a danger in saying, ‘We’re going to do universal background checks, and consider this issue addressed,’ ” said Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Clark said she met over the weekend with a group of mothers whose children were killed by guns. And it’s advocates like them who are pressing Democrats to take an aggressive approach.
“They are very eager that we pass the universal background check, but that we keep going. And I think we heard clearly in the midterms that people are eager for us to do comprehensive gun safety legislation,” Clark said. “And for me that includes the assault weapons ban.”
Although such a ban would go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats have been emboldened by the midterm election results and view gun reform as one of the issues that fueled their return to the majority.With that in mind, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the Democrats’ messaging arm, is circulating a letter seeking co-sponsors for legislation banning assault weapons. It is expected to be released within the next couple weeks, a spokesman said Tuesday.
A similar bill, which Cicilline introduced in the previous Congress, won the support of 178 lawmakers; the current measure has support from 109, but that number is expected to grow as more members, including some of the most prominent liberal freshmen, learn of the campaign.
“It’s absolutely something I support,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-N.Y.). “I’ve talked about that at length with my community.”
The issue could be especially prominent heading into 2020, as the Democrats vying for the White House compete to out-liberal each other in what promises to be a crowded primary field that already includes several progressive candidates.
The Senate version of the assault weapons ban, introduced last month by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is co-sponsored by every Senate Democrat running or considering running for the White House in 2020.
That list includes Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination next year, is also a co-sponsor of Feinstein’s bill.
The Senate measure would ban the sale, production and importation of more than 200 firearms deemed to be military in nature. It also prohibits magazines with a capacity of 10 rounds or more. In both cases the legislation has a grandfather clause, allowing owners of the affected guns and magazines to keep them.
Cicilline’s bill is nearly identical, but adds a provision requiring that local law enforcers be notified whenever a buyer prohibited from owning firearms attempts to purchase a grandfathered weapon.
Yet the concept is a controversial one in many pockets of the country and could put Democrats hailing from conservative-leaning districts in a tough spot. One of those lawmakers, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), is already signaling her opposition to the ban.
“Cheri’s husband is a sheriff and her son was a collegiate trap shooter — she knows we can both respect the right to bear arms while taking common sense steps to prevent gun violence by keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of violent criminals,” her spokesman, Sean Higgins, said in an email.
“Her first priority on this issue is passing bipartisan legislation to require criminal background checks on the sale of all guns.”
Democrats weren’t always so keen to take up the thorny issue of gun control.
Following the enactment of an assault weapons ban in 1994 — a bill also sponsored by Feinstein — Democrats played a political price, particularly in gun-friendly states like Arkansas, Michigan, Washington and West Virginia. The issue was seen as significant in the 2000 presidential race, which sent George W. Bush to the White House, and it virtually stole the Democrats’ appetite to tackle the issue in subsequent election cycles.
Indeed, when Democrats last controlled the House almost a decade ago, party leaders declined to consider tougher gun laws, even in the face of entreaties from some rank-and-file members.
Since then, however, the country has played witness to a long string of mass shootings, including violence targeting a congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., country music fans in Las Vegas and high schoolers in Parkland, Fla.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who has endorsed Cicilline’s bill, said the event that tipped the political scales for him was the 2012 Newtown massacre, where a lone shooter with an assault rifle killed 26 people — 20 first-grade students and six teachers and administrators. The shooter then killed himself.
“The assault weapons ban is a ban against domestic weapons of mass destruction, because that’s exactly what they are,” Higgins said. “If you look at all these mass shootings, it’s typical one shooter kills a lot of people within a matter of minutes. Those weapons should be banned.”
“I think there is pervasive support for both background checks and a ban on assault weapons,” he added.
The House Judiciary committee on Wednesday will officially launch the debate with a hearing on the background check bill.
Republicans are adamantly opposed to Democrats’ gun control plans, and GOP leaders and campaign operatives are sure to pounce, particularly if the weapons ban gains momentum.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) characterized the prohibition as ineffective, politically motivated and “silly.”
“We need to have a serious discussion about this,” he said. “But trying to ban a scary-looking gun is not going to get us there.”
Still, not all Republicans are opposed to the prohibition on assault weapons. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) noted that he voted for the 1994 ban and would likely do so again.
“I’d have to see the bill, but I probably would,” he said.
Yet even King is predicting Democratic leaders would be wary of advancing the assault weapons bill quickly, out of concern they’d undermine the lower-hanging fruit in the form of the background check bill.
“That’s much more on the fast-track than assault weapons,” King said. “I’m not the majority, but I would think that they feel they can do better on this than they can on the assault weapons.”
He added, “If they do the two of them at the same time, they’ll clutter it up.”
Original story here.