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House Democrats advance assault weapons ban after mass shootings

Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House have pressed gun control this week

Sen. Tammy Duckworth testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “After the Highland Park Attack: Protecting Our Communities from Mass Shootings” on Wednesday.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “After the Highland Park Attack: Protecting Our Communities from Mass Shootings” on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats pushed further this week on efforts to combat gun violence, as a House committee advanced a ban on assault weapons and President Joe Biden planned more executive actions to fight crime.

Following the passage of a rare bipartisan bill to address gun violence last month, Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House have kept pressing the issue amid a wave of mass shootings across the country, particularly in the wake of a July Fourth shooter who killed seven people in Highland Park, Ill.

That mass shooting, along with others this year in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., galvanized gun control advocates to mark up an assault weapons ban bill in the House and hold a hearing in the Senate on gun violence.

Biden planned to add to that push with a Pennsylvania event Thursday highlighting a new initiative earmarking $37 billion in funds from a coronavirus economic recovery bill to fight violent crime.

Dubbed the “Safer America Plan,” senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the plan includes funds for 100,000 police officers across the country, $3 billion to clear court backlogs, $15 billion in violence prevention programs and $5 billion for community violence interrupter programs.

At the same time, Biden planned to use the event to call for a renewed assault weapons ban. Biden tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning, so it appears that the 79-year-old president will remain at the White House instead.

Renewed ban

At the House Judiciary Committee markup of an assault weapons ban, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., played audio of 911 recordings from the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 people dead. After hours of debate, the committee advanced the bill on a 25-18 party-line vote.

“Maybe if we hadn’t let this law lapse, the parents of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Uvalde or Buffalo and many other places wouldn’t have to bury their children,” Cicilline said. “For God’s sakes, these weapons were designed for the military to use in war zones, for soldiers in jungles, on battlefields when taking on enemy fire.”

Republicans on the panel argued that the ban violated the Second Amendment and targeted lawful gun owners. They also said it would have no chance of passing the evenly divided Senate, exemplified by Republicans like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing.

“When you disarm law-abiding citizens, the result is the criminals don’t follow the laws. They have the guns and the law-abiding citizens are unable to defend themselves,” Cruz said.

Democrats have pushed further to act on gun control amid criticisms over a rise in violent crime heading into this fall’s election.

The assault weapons ban is the first gun legislation to advance since Congress last month passed a bipartisan package, which Biden signed into law. The bill expanded background checks for people under the age of 21, provided support for “red flag”-style laws at the state level and expanded the country’s mental health supports.

During Wednesday’s House markup, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and others argued they couldn’t wait for the Senate to act.

“I demand relief, and I’m not worried about the other body. They need to do what is right on behalf of this country,” Jackson Lee said.

The ban faced sharp-elbowed debate Wednesday in both chambers, including accusations of lying and bad-faith debate. The House committee markup at one point was interrupted by a protest from gun control advocate David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor.

In the Senate, Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., bristled when Republicans referred to assault weapons as “inanimate objects” that should not be banned.

“I wonder how that logic applies to grenade launchers? We don’t allow those to be legally sold to Americans. They are just inanimate objects,” Durbin said.

The House bill would ban the sale or possession of high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons both by name — such as the AK-47 — and features such as a pistol grip.

Republican pushback

Republicans further argued that millions of people have used AR-15-style rifles and similar guns covered by the bill in self-defense. Members of the House panel offered 13 amendments that Democrats voted down.

They included an amendment from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, that would give an exemption to the bill for anyone who lives within 10 miles of an international border.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., claimed the provision would arm residents to prevent an “invasion” on the southern border.

Another, from Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., would exempt employees of pregnancy crisis centers, which he argued have been targeted by violence in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning a constitutional right to an abortion.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., and others argued the bill would violate gun rights found in the Second Amendment, citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen issued last month.

Bishop said the decision and others by the Supreme Court protected the right to possess firearms in “common use” and that “these weapons that you seek to ban are in common use today.”

Cicilline pushed back on that argument, saying prior Supreme Court cases allow Congress to regulate “dangerous and unusual” weapons, which can include AR-15s and similar rifles.

“The Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Cicilline said, arguing the characteristics of those rifles make them “especially lethal. It’s more dangerous and more capable of killing people quickly and efficiently.”

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