The Democrats' plan to ban assault weapons: Does it stand a chance?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, her Democratic colleagues, and a group of mayors and police officers want to beat the odds, and the NRA

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks in front of a display of assault weapons during a news conference on Jan. 24.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) unveiled her new assault-weapons-ban legislation, flanked by several House and Senate colleagues, victims of gun violence, supportive clergy and uniformed police organizations, and models of semiautomatic weapons used in December's Sandy Hook Elementary School killings and several other mass shootings. Feinstein, one of the sponsors of the expired 1994 assault-weapons ban, says her new bill would be more effective because it would specifically ban more weapons (157 named models, plus slightly broadening the criteria for what constitutes an assault weapon), it would make a background check mandatory for trading or selling existing assault weapons, it would mandate that gun owners keep their weapons locked up securely, and, most importantly, the bill wouldn't expire after a decade. "No weapon is taken from anyone," she said, but an open-ended law is needed to "dry up the supply of these weapons over time." Of course, it has to pass first.

Even with the horror of Sandy Hook on lawmakers' minds, "this is really an uphill road," Feinstein acknowledged. Gun-control advocates have been unable to get Congress to take up renewing the original assault-weapons ban since it expired in 2004. Feinstein and her colleagues, TIME's Katy Steinmetz says, "made arguments about why this time could be different, while acknowledging that there's a good chance it won't be."

Well, "now that there's a proposal for a new one on the table, it seems that it's acceptable to admit in polite company that the previous 'assault weapons' ban was a failure," says Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review. Feinstein says that her new bill would fix the problems from the 1994-2004 ban, but her so-called improvements are "all rather academic." Why?

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Because a) there is no way that an assault-weapons ban is going to pass the House, and b) there is no way that Feinstein's bill is going to leave the Senate in that shape. Harry Reid is iffy on the idea to begin with, and he has thus suggested both that he will allow an open amendment process and that he would require any bill that made it to a vote to be sufficiently moderate to have a shot at passing the House. Anybody who thinks that the bill could pass in anything close to this form has been smoking gunpowder. [National Review]

The funny thing, says Scott Clement at The Washington Post, is that an assault-weapons ban is pretty popular, even among Republicans. According to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Americans support such a ban, including 76 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Republicans (51 percent of Republicans oppose a ban). That's pretty good for congressional "Republicans' least-liked current proposal." But it matters what you call the restrictions and who's proposing them. Republicans are generally opposed to "gun control," and they have a very unfavorable view of President Obama's recently unveiled gun-safety proposals, which include an assault-weapons ban and a number of individual provisions a majority of Republicans otherwise support. "Obama's full-throated endorsement of a comprehensive proposal may have increased the chances new gun restrictions become law. But as the chief messenger he also brings out a lot of ill from the opposition."

Popular opinion doesn't carry as much weight in Washington as the gun lobby, anyway, says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. So the conventional wisdom is clearly that an assault-weapons ban "doesn't have a chance of passing in its present incarnation or in the present political climate where the National Rifle Association still controls a large number of votes in Congress."

Look for it not to pass in this Congress. And look for there to be more ringing words about how it's time for an assault-weapons ban when the next instance of carnage of innocents occurs.... If many politicians have to choose between acting on laws that might prevent deaths and being given fig-leap spin to support the NRA and get campaign donations, guess which one they'll choose? The one they have chosen — and are choosing. [Moderate Voice]

Certainly the assault-weapons ban is less likely to pass than other measures being proposed in the Senate, like a stand-alone ban on high-capacity magazines and universal background checks for gun sales — what Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) calls the "sweet spot" in gun control. "Schumer doesn't ordinarily involve himself in symbolic fights for bills he doesn't think will pass, but he's taking a hopeful posture on this one," says Reid Pillifant at Capital New York. "Will it be hard?" he asked of the assault-weapons ban on Thursday? "Sure. We owe it to our constituents and our country to try."

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