WASHINGTON -- The struggle that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) faces in winning approval for a new assault weapons ban was apparent Thursday as soon as she walked into a room to unveil her bill.
No Republican lawmaker was there. Nor was a red-state Democrat.
Her new measure, which goes further than the now-lapsed 1994 law she authored, would prohibit the sale, import and manufacture of more than 150 weapons – including the make of Bushmaster rifle used in the Connecticut school shootings – and ammunition magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds.
Those who legally own assault weapons would be allowed to keep them. Buyers of currently owned assault weapons would be subject to criminal background checks.
“We have tried to recognize the right of a citizen to legally possess a weapon,’’ Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill press conference, standing alongside a display of assault weapons, including models similar to those used in mass shootings. “No weapon is taken from anyone. The purpose is to dry up the supply of these weapons over time.’’
Although Feinstein dropped the idea of requiring owners of assault weapons to register their firearms, her proposal quickly drew criticism from the National Rifle Assn.and its allies in Congress.
“Sen. Feinstein has been trying to ban guns from law-abiding citizens for decades,’’ the NRA said in a statement. “It’s disappointing but not surprising that she is once again focused on curtailing the Constitution instead of prosecuting criminals or fixing our broken mental health system. The American people know gun bans do not work and we are confident Congress will reject Sen. Feinstein’s wrongheaded approach.”
Feinstein launched her drive standing alongside gun violence victims and law enforcement officials who will be crucial to her efforts to round up votes for the measure.
“I don’t think people really understand the firepower that’s out there on the streets,’’ Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. “We’re not trying to seize everybody’s guns. But we need reasonable gun control in this country or, guess what, it will happen again,’’ he added, referring to mass shootings.
President Obama has called for reinstating the federal ban. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president was working with Feinstein and would use “the power of his office’’ to advance the ban and other measures to reduce gun violence.
The bill is among a spate of measures introduced since last month’s shooting of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The measures include expanding background checks to all gun purchases and requiring bulk purchases of ammunition to be reported to authorities.
Reinstating the assault weapons ban is considered to face longer odds than a number of other proposals, especially in the Republican-controlled House. The bill’s introduction comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to hold a hearing next Wednesday on gun violence.
In 1994, Feinstein overcame the opposition of the National Rifle Assn. to win passage of a landmark weapons ban -- as an amendment to an anti-crime bill -- only to see it expire a decade later. When she sought to renew it in 2004, she ran into opposition not only from Republicans but also from a number of fellow Democrats fearful of angering rural voters. But gun control advocates said they believe the Sandy Hook shootings will represent a turning point in the debate.
“Newtown made a difference,’’ said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), sponsor of a House bill to ban assault weapons. “People of America said: ‘How could this happen? How could this happen to our children?’’’
McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son wounded by a gunman on a Long Island train in 1993, joined Feinstein on Capitol Hill, along with Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois. Other sponsors of the House bill are: Democratic Reps. Ed Perlmutter, whose district includes the Aurora, Colo., movie theater where a gunman killed 12 people and injured dozens more in July, and Elizabeth Esty, who represents Newtown.
Under Feinstein’s proposal, the manufacture, sale and importation of weapons that accept a detachable magazine and include one or more military-style characteristics – such as a pistol grip or a folding stock – would be banned.
Gun control advocates complained that loopholes in the 1994 ban were so great that small modifications in banned weapons made them legal.
The new bill is modeled after California’s tough assault weapons ban, but would close a loophole in the state law. It would ban assault weapons that have a device – such as a so-called bullet button – that can be used to swiftly reload the weapons with multiple rounds of ammunition. Legislation also has been introduced in Sacramento to close the loophole.
Gun control has long been a personal priority for Feinstein, who, when challenged by then-Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), an NRA ally, about her knowledge of firearms during the 1993 debate, said, “Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.” She became San Francisco mayor in 1978 after Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death in City Hall. Shortly after she arrived in the Senate, she took up the issue after a 1993 shooting rampage in a San Francisco office building that left eight people dead and six wounded.
Feinstein said that the bill’s fate will rest heavily on public pressure.
“If people care enough to call every member of the House and every member of the Senate and say, we have had enough, these weapons do not belong on the streets of our towns, our cities, in our schools, in our malls, in our workplaces, in our movie theaters, enough is enough, we can win this. But it depends on America and it depends on the courage of Americans.’’