Update: On Thursday, January 24, Feinstein introduced her assault weapons ban legislation to the Senate. As expected, the bill proposes a ban on 150 types of firearms in an effort to "dry up the supply of these weapons over time."
Unfortunately, this bill will do little more than allow Democrats to grand stand on gun control without actually moving any pragmatic reforms through Congress. The bill, if it somehow miraculously survives the Senate (spoiler: it won't), is guaranteed to run straight into a House veto.
Rather than pursuing practical reforms by addressing non-firearm specific issues like mandatory universal background checks and banning high-capacity magazines, Democrats have decided to target the firearms themselves. This unecessarily engages the NRA and 2nd Amendment advocates head-on in a losing battle for proponents of increased gun control.
Instead of making Republicans stand up and oppose universal background checks or publically defend the need for 30-round magazines, Democrats have given the GOP the opportunity to defend the 2nd Amendment. This will result in an Assault Weapons Ban that is dead on arrival in Congress and weaken the opportunity for much-needed reforms in the wake of these tragedies. Should the 113th Congress fail to secure meaningful gun control reform, you can lay the blame squarely on those Democrats who advocated re-introducing an assault weapons ban rather than going after simple reforms that have near universal support.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, gun control — and the wider Second Amendment debate — is expected to remain a simmering topic both in national discourse and for politicians to address.
After a year filled with a number of high-profile mass shootings ranging from the Oak Creek, Wisc., Sikh Temple shooting to the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre and most recently the wholesale slaughter of children at Sandy Creek Elementary in Newtown, Conn. and shooting of volunteer firefights in Webster, NY, some political movement and action is inevitable.
The NRA has been the biggest conservative voice in the debate, advocating for increased armed security in schools and public places, a “more guns for the good guys” theory which I soundly rejected last week as the misguided ravings of a lobby thoroughly in the pocket of gun manufacturers rather than American citizens.
On the left, the response has been somewhat more muted and disjointed. President Obama established a commission chaired by Vice President Joe Biden to look into the issue of gun control and promised action. On the congressional side, California Senator Dianne Feinstein committed to bringing a new assault weapon ban to the Senate at the start of the next Congress.
Senator Feinstein has posted a preview of the bill on her website. If the final language of the law actually says what that summary claims, the Democrats are in for a political blowout that will do nothing to advance the ball on meaningful gun control while costing them untold political capital.
The bill promises to stop the 1) sale, 2) transfer, 3) importation and 4) manufacturing of military-style assault weapons, handguns, and shotguns as well as high-capacity ammunition feeding devices. It also allegedly calls for a ban on all weapons capable of holding a magazine with a greater than 10 round capacity (which includes many standard issue police handguns).
The bill, as it stands, is an exemplary demonstration of what political suicide looks like.
In one sweeping stroke, Feinstein intends to instigate the pro-gun lobby, alienate the majority of Americans who oppose re-instating a federal assault weapons ban, and run head long into a constitutional battle, all without even the faintest hope of bill passage.
While the bill sounds great on paper if you’re playing to a politically progressive base, it will do little if anything to actually address gun violence in this country.
In 1994, Congress passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The ban outlawed the new manufacture and sale of specific models of semiautomatic weapons and high capacity magazines.
After a decade in existence, the bill did little more than cost Democrats the control of Congress.
A 2004 study by the National Research Council found that academic studies of the assault weapon ban "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence.” A report from the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice concluded that the ban had “no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury.”
The ban was able to reduce the number of assault weapons used in the commission of crimes, but the number of assault weapons used in the commission of crimes was so low to begin with that the minimal effects of the ban were outpaced by gun crime committed with perfectly legal firearms.
These studies point to the real underlying issue – namely that gun crime in America is a problem of culture more than anything.
Efforts to address issues of gun violence have to focus on pragmatic, bi-partisan solutions rather than politically divisive and practically ineffective legislation.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker laid out a fantastic case for immediately effective reforms that do nothing to ban or restrict the legal sale of firearms. His calls for pragmatism fell on largely deaf ears.
There is no reason that federal background checks should not be universally required for the purchase of firearms. There is no defensible justification for why 75% of states are able to ignore mental health checks for firearms purchasers. Not requiring individuals to report lost or stolen firearms hampers legitimate enforcement efforts by making it more difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal guns and should have been addressed years ago.
All of these issues can be addressed quickly and effectively without requiring wholesale prohibition of whole categories of firearms. Reforming and enforcing the laws already on the books receives popular support and ensures that gun control can be made more effective without attacking the rights of legal gun owners.
Any federal assault weapons ban is almost 100% sure to fail passage on the floor of the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Even if it were to somehow secure passage, the political blowback would almost certainly be immense – a serious consideration for the many red state Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014. Taking such a risk on an ineffective and divisive approach when more practical and realistic fixes are already on the table smacks of bone-headed politics and outright political ignorance.
Might a strengthened federal assault weapon ban drastically reduce gun crime? Of course, there’s always the possibility that this law would be different than past federal and state efforts (both Connecticut and New York, site of the most recent shootings with assault weapons, have assault weapon bans in place). However, committing to such an extremely polarizing approach to gun control will condemn the Democrats to relive history and suffer tremendous political backlash without any hope of realizing any practical benefits.
If the Democratic leadership has any sense, they will bench Feinstein’s bill and take up a down-to-Earth and immediately effective package of reforms that are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. It’s long overdue that our politicians learn that reform comes from the pragmatic middle rather than from the crusading fringe.
Charts courtesy of the Washington Post's Wonkblog and Ezra Klein. The full article can be viewed here.
Follow Mark on Twitter at @markskogan.