WASHINGTON—A proposal to ban assault weapons and limit magazine capacity was approved by a Senate committee Thursday during a contentious debate that accentuated the parties’ divided views on gun rights and restrictions.
The Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill along strict party lines, 10-8. The legislation is considered the most far-reaching gun curb of four measures approved by the committee over the past two weeks. And it will face an “uphill” battle on the Senate floor, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who proposed the measure.
“How is this country going to be a weaker country because we don’t produce millions of assault weapons?” she said. “How is this a bad thing to do?”
The vote Thursday came on the three-month anniversary of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead. The shooter—who later took his own life—opened fire with a version of the military-style AR-15 assault rifle.
President Obama came out in strong support of banning such weapons in January, when he proposed additional gun measures such as closing the loophole that allows private gun sales at trade shows or between individuals to proceed without background checks.
Republicans, however, stood fast in their stance that outlawing assault weapons won’t make a tangible impact on overall gun violence, signaling that gun-control advocates may have a better chance of passing less-stringent measures such as an improved background check system and a crack down on gun trafficking.
Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reservist who often mentions that he has an AR-15, highlighted that most gun owners are law-abiding citizens. Prohibiting such weapons, the South Carolina senator said, will merely provide “a false sense of safety.”
“I could see a situation where an individual citizen would need more than six bullets, or 10,” he added on the issue of limiting magazine size. “There are so many better ways to deal with this.”
The committee advanced additional measures Tuesday to expand the federal background check system for gun purchases and provide $40 million in grants for school security measures. Last week, it approved a plan to crack down on “straw buyers” who purchase weapons for those who legally cannot.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he did see potential problems with the proposed assault weapons ban, which would prohibit 157 types of weapons and limit magazine size to 10 bullets. He advanced the measure to the floor even as Democrats on the committee conceded that the plan wouldn’t get the requisite 60 votes to block a GOP filibuster.
“In Vermont, we want to give deer a chance,” the Democrat said in an interview Tuesday, elaborating on his home state’s magazine limits during hunting season. “Of course, I’ve argued we want to give kids in school a chance, too.”
The markup got heated when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas questioned the constitutionality of an assault weapons ban, which was passed in 1994 and expired a decade later.
“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 or Rights?” the freshman Republican said, addressing Feinstein.
“I’m not a sixth grader,” the former San Francisco mayor retorted, as other Democrats rushed to mention constitutional bans on child pornography. “I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I’ve seen the bullets that implode...I am reasonably well educated, and I thank you for the lecture.”David Uberti can be reached at David.Uberti@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.