Dems keep mum on guns

While some Democrats who once supported the Assault Weapons Ban are speaking out on guns, most won't comment

Published July 24, 2012 3:35PM (EDT)

                (<a href=''>Vartanov Anatoly</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Vartanov Anatoly via Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Last week’s shooting in Colorado has reignited the debate over gun control, and specifically the federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the manufacturing of the type of rifle and the kind of high-capacity magazine used by alleged shooter James Holmes. That law expired in 2004, thanks to a 10-year sunset provision, and repeated attempts to reinstate it have gone nowhere.

But perhaps “debate” isn’t even the right word for the current discourse over gun control. Instead, there are an overwhelming number of voices on the right opposing increased gun restrictions, and large number of voices on the left saying gun control is hopeless, and a small handful of Democratic lawmakers actually pushing for new laws or a reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban. Mitt Romney has suggested that we not even speak about gun policy, and many Democrats have obliged. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama is interested in pushing no new laws or having a major discussion about gun policy.

The Assault Weapons Ban got 56 votes in 1993 -- could it get anywhere near that many today? Salon reached out to every senator who voted for the original amendment and remains in Congress -- 17 Democrats and one Republican (Dick Lugar) -- along with an assortment of over 20 progressive House Democrats and leaders, asking if they would support reinstating the ban. The overwhelming response was silence -- most did not respond.

But some did. To her credit, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who sponsored the original Assault Weapons Ban, will hold a press conference today along with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who has been a tireless advocate for gun control, and Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez on “common-sense gun safety reforms.” Feinstein’s California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, wrote an Op-Ed in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday calling for a reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban, along with Lautenberg’s bill that would ban large-capacity magazine clips. She noted that there’s a “long tradition of our country responding to these tragedies by taking common-sense action at the federal level to protect our families.”

Whitney Smith, a spokesperson for Sen. John Kerry, told Salon that the Massachusetts Democrat,

has always supported the assault weapons ban, fought to pass it into law in the '90s, and even left the campaign trail in 2004 to come back and vote to reauthorize it even after the NRA threatened to hang the vote around his neck. It was the right thing to do then, and it's the right thing to do now. This is a common sense step that's been supported by law enforcement every step of the way, and John Kerry's supported every effort to restore it after reauthorization failed.  Whether it's dealing with assault weapons, high capacity magazines or closing gun show loopholes, Sen. Kerry will continue to support gun safety reform as long as he has a voice in the Senate. As a lifelong hunter and a gun-owner, he knows that rights come with responsibilities.

A spokesperson for Sen. Carl Levin told Salon, “Right now, there is not any Senate legislation pending that would reinstate the assault weapons ban. However, Sen. Levin is a cosponsor of S. 32, the Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act, sponsored by Sen. Lautenberg, which would ban the high capacity ammunition magazines and feeding devices that make the use of assault weapons so dangerous.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Ben Cardin, who was not in the Senate when the original law passed, said, “Senator Cardin has been a long-time supporter of the assault weapons ban.”

Rep. McCarthy has also been outspoken, as has Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents Aurora, Colo.  Rep. Keith Ellison, the chairman of the progressive caucus, tweeted this morning, “Let's ban sale of assault weapons, high-capacity clips, gun-show loopholes. Ok w/ responsible private guns for hunting, home defense.” Democratic leaders in the House were silent at first, but Rep. John Larson, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said at a press conference this morning, "You will see action from Democrats" on legislation.  Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said last night that she will try to meet with the National Rifle Association to see if they will agree to any kind of new gun laws. It seems highly unlikely, considering how vociferously they’ve fought everything, including basic background checks.

It’s unclear what Feinstein, McCarthy and their colleagues will propose today, however, and Feinstein suggested on Sunday that an election year is not the best time to engage on gun policy.

Still, the majority of senators who voted for the original Assault Weapons Ban did not respond to requests for comment sent yesterday (all Democrats, unless noted):

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Independent from Connecticut
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Maryland
Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia
Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana
Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington

UPDATE: While walking in the Capitol today, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked by a reporter if Democrats will push for stricter gun laws. She avoided taking on the issue, saying only, "Well, I’m concerned about the people who died there.  And we’re getting the facts as to how that happened, what mental health issues involved there are and how he acquired the guns."

UPDATE: A spokesperson emails Salon, "Senator Akaka has always been a strong supporter of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.  He voted to create it in 1993, he voted to renew it in 2004, and he supports it reinstating it today."

UPDATE: Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii said in a statement sent to Salon after publishing:

“I am not against owning guns.  I understand hunting and I know that some people feel evil is all around them and they want some protection, but to be able to go online and buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition, what in God’s name is a civilian doing with 6,000 rounds of ammunition? I am all for personal protection but you do not need an arsenal.  Our country needs a national gun law.  We should limit the number and type of weapons an individual is allowed to own and they ought to be catalogued in a national database that every arms dealer has to check before making a sale.  If somebody carries an assault rifle, like the kind I carried while fighting in Europe during World War II, they are not going duck hunting; they are going manhunting.  Current reports indicate that James Holmes, the suspect who allegedly shot up the theater in Colorado, did not have a criminal record nor did he have a history of erratic behavior but he was able to arm himself with a shotgun, two handguns, an assault rifle and 6,000 rounds of ammunition in a little less than three months and nobody thought a thing about it until it was too late.  What was the rationale for his purchases? We should not permit that sort of thing in this country."


By Alex Seitz-Wald

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