by Jackie Kucinich and Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., argued Wednesday a new assault weapons ban is necessary to reduce gun violence that has increased since the federal law expired in 2004.
She cited massacres that occurred at Virginia Tech University, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. - the most recent incident - to make her case.
"Weapons are more lethal today than they were in 2004," Feinstein said at a Senate Judicary Committee hearing on her proposal. "The need for a federal ban has never been greater."
It's the first hearing on the proposed ban on military-style assault weapons since a Dec. 14 rampage at a Connecticut school that left 20 children and six adults dead. Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on that day, will be among those testifying.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member on the Judiciary panel, repeated his opposition to Feinstein's legislation, saying it was based on "arbitrary distinctions" and have "nothing to do with the functions of the weapons."
"Those arbitrary distinctions and the fact that these weapons are commonly used for self-defense raise constitutional questions under the Second Amendment," he said. "And the same questions of self-defense arise concerning magazines that enable firing of more than 10 rounds."
President Obama has called on Congress to set aside differences and ignore pressure from gun-rights groups such as the NRA. In addition to the assault weapons ban, Obama is seeking legislation that would mandate a universal background check for gun owners and a limit on the ammunition in magazine clips.
Feinstein's proposal would ban the future sales of assault weapons and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition, but it would exempt those that already exist. The legislation would also bar the sales, manufacture and importation of semi-automatic rifles that can use detachable magazines and have certain military features. Specifically, 157 weapons would be banned but Feinstein said more than 2,200 others used for hunting and sport would be excluded.
The legislation, however, faces an uphill battle in the divided Congress, especially in the GOP-controlled House. Even some of Feinstein's fellow Democrats, such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have expressed reservations. Pryor, who is opposed to the weapons ban, is one of several Democrats from states with high gun-ownership rates who is up for re-election in 2014.
The first assault weapons ban, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, expired in 2004. That ban only applied to weapons that were manufactured after its enactment. Congress has tried several times to renew the law, only to face stiff opposition in the House.
The hearing at one point became heated, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn argued over background checks for gun owners. As Flynn began to explain the department's focus on prosecuting criminals rather than people who fail to pass federal background checks, Graham interrupted.
"It's clear that your focus is not on prosecuting people who fail background checks, would you agree with that?" Graham said, interrupting again to tell Flynn that he was frustrated that proponents of universally extending the checks don't recognize that current laws are not being enforced.
Flynn raised his voice as he was interrupted again by Graham.
"It doesn't matter," Flynn said. "It's a paper thing. I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally - that's what a background check does."
People in the crowded hearing room began to applaud, causing Feinstein to ask for civility.
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