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Panel Splits Sharply on Feinstein’s Assault Weapons Plan

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee strongly disagreed Wednesday over a proposed reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, indicating that the panel may break along party lines when it marks up the legislation, possibly as early as Thursday.

At a crowded hearing filled with uniformed law enforcement officers and those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, Democrats said the assault weapons legislation (S 150) — which would ban the future production of 157 specific kinds of gun, as well as ammunition magazines with more than 10 bullets — would save lives. Recent shooting massacres could have been prevented or made less deadly had the proposal been on the books, they said.

“The one common thread running through these mass shootings in recent years — from Aurora, Colorado, to Tucson, Arizona, to Blacksburg, Virginia — is that the gunman used a military-style, semiautomatic assault weapon or large-capacity ammunition magazine to commit the unspeakable horror,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chaired the hearing and is the lead sponsor of the legislation.

But Republicans questioned whether Feinstein’s bill is the proper policy response to the shooting massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school on Dec. 14.

Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the panel’s top Republican and the only one in attendance for most of the lengthy hearing, said the bill arbitrarily defines firearms as assault weapons by focusing on “cosmetic” physical characteristics, such as pistol grips or folding stocks, rather than on functional characteristics.

The bill “bans guns based solely on their appearance,” Grassley said. “Some of those cosmetic features are useful for self-defense. Others have nothing to do with the functioning of the weapon. As a result, the bill would ban some guns that are less powerful, dangerous and that inflict less severe wounds than others that it exempts.”

Other Republicans noted that the vast majority of gun violence in the United States is carried out with handguns rather than with the kind of rifles affected by Feinstein’s bill. In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, noted that three separate Justice Department-funded studies have found that the original assault weapons ban, which was in effect between 1994 and 2004, did little to reduce gun violence.

But law enforcement witnesses who testified pushed back against the Republican senators’ arguments at several points during the hearing.

John Walsh, a federal prosecutor in Colorado who testified on behalf of the Justice Department, acknowledged that studies on the effectiveness of the original ban suggest that it was ineffective, but added that more data needs to be collected and analyzed to reach that conclusion firmly.

Edward Flynn, the chief of the Milwaukee Police Department, drew loud applause when he cut off Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and testily urged Congress to expand criminal background checks for gun purchases because he said they are effective. He showed little patience for Graham’s argument that the federal government should instead prosecute more people who fail background checks under the existing system, rather than expand it.

The Judiciary Committee is set to mark up the assault weapons ban and other bills aimed at curbing gun violence on Thursday, though aides expect action to slip into March, since any member of the panel may request additional time for consideration and one of the other bills has not been formally introduced yet.

Even if the committee approves the assault weapons bill when the markup eventually occurs, the legislation’s fate is uncertain in the broader Senate and even more doubtful in the Republican-led House. Key Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have declined to endorse the bill, and House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., on Wednesday repeated some of the criticisms made by his Senate GOP counterparts about the bill.

“The problem with it is the distinction between a so-called assault weapon and the 40 million semiautomatic weapons that were lawful then, are lawful now [and] are owned by citizens of the United States, is one of cosmetics, not one of functionality,” Goodlatte said during a breakfast session with reporters Wednesday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. He declined to say whether the House would take up the proposal.

The National Rifle Association strongly opposes the assault weapons bill and took to Twitter during Wednesday’s Senate hearing to urge its supporters— which include roughly half of all members of Congress — to “stop Feinstein.”