WASHINGTON -- After a couple of false starts, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill yesterday to ban assault weapons, restrict the size of ammunition clips and require universal background checks on gun sales.
Despite passionate pleas by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the bill's sponsor, it heads to the Senate floor with no Republican support, and it may not have the backing of every Democrat. The GOP-led House of Representatives is all but certain to reject it.
"As I've said before, the road is uphill," Feinstein said after her bill cleared the panel on a party-line vote of 10-8.
She was the lead sponsor of the original assault weapons ban Congress passed in 1994 but didn't renew 10 years later for lack of support. The toll from gun violence continues to climb, but even that might not be enough to get restrictions on the use of assault weapons.
'Little miracle'"It was a little miracle that it passed the first time," said Robert Spitzer, the chairman of the political science department at SUNY Cortland, an expert on the politics of gun control. "It has long odds now."
Critics, including the National Rifle Association, say such laws do little to deter crime and infringe on the liberties of gun owners. Feinstein, who once trained to use a gun to protect herself, said she has seen too many killings. She became mayor of San Francisco after two colleagues were slain.
"I think a lot of my passion comes from just what I've seen on the streets of cities in this country," she said.
Yesterday'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 said her bill, which bans 157 firearms, still allowed people to buy plenty of guns.
"It exempts 2,271 weapons," she said. "Isn't that enough for the people in the United States? Do they need a bazooka?" But the heated exchanges on the bill, and the party-line vote to send it to the full Senate, illustrate the difficulties of coming to an agreement.
"I wish we could all come a little more to the middle on this issue," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Feinstein's intensity was on display when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a tea party favorite whose confrontational style has gained attention, raised constitutional questions about her bill. He and other Republicans regard it as an intrusion on the Second Amendment.
"Would she consider it constitutional for Congress to specify that the First Amendment shall apply only to the following books, and shall not apply to the books that Congress has deemed outside the protection of the Bill of Rights?" he asked.
"Likewise," he continued, "would she think that the Fourth Amendment's protections against searches and seizures could properly apply only to the following specified individuals and not to the individuals that Congress has deemed outside the protection of the bill of rights?"
"I'm not a sixth-grader," Feinstein shot back. "Senator, I've been on this committee for 20 years. I was a mayor for nine years. I've looked at bodies that have been shot with weapons. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered."
Noting that she was not a lawyer, the four-term senator said: "It's fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution . . . I am reasonably well-educated, and I thank you for the lecture."
Later, Feinstein apologized to Cruz for the tone of her reply. "You sort of got my dander up," she said.