Dianne Feinstein’s lonely anti-gun crusade

Harry Reid drops her assault weapons ban from the Democratic gun-control package as the NRA cheers

Published March 19, 2013 8:01PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)
(Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)

Everyone knew that Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s assault weapons ban was going to be the toughest gun-control reform to achieve in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Although it passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a party line vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Feinstein last night that it won’t be part of the still-undefined gun control package he’ll bring to the Senate floor. Feinstein is free to introduce her bill, which bans 157 models of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as an amendment to the package, but it will almost certainly fail.

“People say, well aren’t you disappointed; I say, of course I’m disappointed,” a visibly frustrated Feinstein told reporters (including Salon’s Alex Seitz Wald) Tuesday afternoon. “Because if it was in a package it would take 60 votes to get it out.” She suggested asking Reid directly about his reasoning, and a little while later, Reid obliged. “Using the most optimistic numbers,” the Senate leader insisted, the assault weapons ban has less than 40 votes. “That's not 60."

Still, dumping the ban from the Democrats’ official package is a sign that the NRA still holds sway over Democrats. Clearly Reid cares more about red-state Democrats beholden to the gun lobby than he does about gun safety. Remember, this is the same NRA-backed Reid who put an amendment in the Affordable Care Act declaring that wellness and prevention efforts should not collect or disseminate information about whether patients had guns in their home.

Feinstein has had some of her finest moments on gun safety issues, most recently dressing down the insufferable Ted Cruz, who lectured her on why an assault weapons ban is unconstitutional. "I am not a sixth grader," Feinstein told the arrogant mansplainer. "Congress is in the business of making the law. The Supreme Court interprets the law. If they strike down the law, they strike down the law.”

As a San Francisco County supervisor in 1978, Feinstein found the body of Harvey Milk after he and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Dan White. In 1994 she successfully pushed for an assault weapons ban after a massacre at a San Francisco high-rise killed nine people and injured six. “I’ve worked 40 years on these issues -- guns. I’ve seen so much violence,” a shaken Feinstein told reporters today.

Compromise-oriented Democrats say dropping the ban gives a gun-control package far more chance of passing. At the Plum Line, Greg Sargent argues that the ban was a bargaining chip on the way to a push for universal background checks. But background check legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the exact same 10-8 party-line vote as the assault weapons ban. Sen. Chuck Schumer talks optimistically about finding GOP partners, but early discussions with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn fell apart, and there are currently no Republican senators on record supporting background checks, either. Talking to TPM, Reid refused to commit to putting background checks in the bill, either. “I am working to put something together that I can get 60 votes to put a bill on the floor,” he said.

We could ultimately wind up with Democrat-sponsored legislation that merely toughens penalties for so-called straw man gun purchases and beefs up school safety. That would be a shame. For a while it felt like the outrage over Newtown would be more transformative than that inspired by other gun carnage. But it seems NRA lobbyist Bob Welch was right when he said the organization would prevail once “the Connecticut effect” passed.

Contrast Senate Democrats’ equivocation with the courage of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Immediately after the Aurora shootings, which used formerly banned assault weapons, Hickenlooper downplayed the need for a renewed ban.  “If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right?” But after Newtown, Hickenlooper found religion. On Wednesday he’s expected to sign a state background check bill plus a ban on magazines larger than 15 rounds, despite ferocious opposition from state Republicans and the NRA.

Sadly, it’s going to take more mass murders with assault weapons to strengthen politicians’ spines.

By Joan Walsh

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Assault Weapons Ban Dianne Feinstein Editor's Picks Gun Control Newtown School Shooting