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Assault weapons ban shrivels in US senate

20 March 2013, 16:02

Washington - US lawmakers dropped an effort to include a ban on assault weapons in a broader gun control package on Tuesday, conceding the difficulties of passing such legislation through Congress.

The move by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid does not kill the proposal outright, but cleaving it off from three other measures being strongly pushed by President Barack Obama's Democrats leaves it to wither in today's highly partisan Congress.

Reid said the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, proposed in the wake of last year's mass murder of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, did not have the votes to pass.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein had tabled the ban, and it had won support from many in her party, but not enough fellow senators to pass the 100-member chamber.

"Right now her amendment, using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes," Reid said. "I have to get something on the floor so we can have votes on that issue."

Controversial bills need 60 votes to ensure that they are not derailed by a filibuster, a parliamentary manoeuvre to prevent them coming to a vote.

Not going to 'play dead'

Democrats, who hold 55 Senate seats, had sought Republican support for four measures, including that background checks be required for all gun sales, which they hoped to cobble together into one bill.

The other three have a chance of winning some modest Republican support and have somewhat better odds of getting through both houses of Congress.

The assault weapons ban, backed by the White House, passed out of committee last week on a strict party-line vote.

It still could be voted on separately, and while that would be expected to fail, Feinstein was standing firm about demanding Reid allow her such a vote.

"I'm not going to lay down and play dead," she said on CNN. "I think the American people have said in every single public poll that they support this kind of legislation."

Not allowing her a floor vote on her measure "would be a major betrayal of trust", she said, noting that Reid told her she would have an opportunity for a floor vote.

Pushback from Democrats

But the ban's lukewarm support among Democrats was "the handwriting on the wall", Republican Senator James Inhofe said.

Inhofe said he now believed "zero" bills tightening gun laws would pass Congress this year.

"Some could pass the Senate, but not the House," which is controlled by Republicans who are less supportive of legislation that could be seen as curtailing American's Second Amendment right to bear arms.

There is also some pushback from Democrats in rural states where guns are popular for hunting and sport.

Democratic Representative Mike Thompson, who chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said Reid's move was not surprising, and that Feinstein "knew all along it was going to be an extremely heavy lift".

Gun violence prevention is fraught with sensitivities, Thompson said, particularly when lawmakers use tragedy to drive home a political agenda.

Reprisal of 1994 ban

"The issue is volatile. Even the slightest hint of using the wrong vernacular" creates problems, he said.

As for a way forward, "we need to prioritise... commonsense reforms," Thompson said.

The Feinstein measure would have prohibited the manufacture, import and sale of 157 models of assault weapons, including the one used on 14 December to kill 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It would have been a reprisal of her 1994 assault weapons ban, which only squeaked through Congress because it included a sunset provision that caused it to expire in 2004.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement that "we continue to believe in the comprehensive set of reforms put forth by the president", and stressed that all four measures that passed through committee, including the assault weapons ban, "should be part of the solution" to gun violence.

But Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation said there was never enough congressional support for Feinstein's ban, especially given how many Democrats who supported the 1994 ban subsequently lost their seats in Congress.

"I think Democrats are taking a look at the demographics and the electorate," Gottlieb said.

"They know the number of seats they have up in the next election, and if they pushed that bill through, the Senate would change hands."



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