WASHINGTON – House Democrats pushed ahead Wednesday with legislation that would ban certain semi-automatic weapons as they considered their most far-reaching response yet to this summer’s series of mass shootings.
Democrats hope that the 100-page bill moving through the Judiciary Committee will pass the House before the August break. But that is far from assured because some moderates in the party, especially those from swing districts, are wary of a vote on broad gun controls before the November elections — especially when the bill has little chance of becoming law due to opposition in the Senate.
Democrats can afford to lose only four votes if Republicans are united in opposition to the ban. Maine Rep. Jared Golden, who represents a GOP-leaning district, is one of the few Democrats who have indicated a “no” vote.
“I don’t support any version of that,” Golden said. He is joined by Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who is also facing a tough reelection race, and has said he doesn't believe in bans on weapons.
Despite not yet having full support from his caucus, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the bill's lead sponsor, said he is confident he can get the required votes, even if that involves reaching out for Republican support.
“There are more guns than people in this country, more mass shootings than days in the year. This is a uniquely American problem, and assault weapons only magnify the epidemic,” Cicilline said during the committee hearing.
The renewed push comes nearly two decades after Congress allowed similar restrictions to lapse. The original ban passed in 1994, led by then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and outlawed certain semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. It exempted an estimated 1.5 million of those weapons and 25 million that were already owned by people in the United States.
In the nearly three decades since, mass shootings have become alarmingly frequent, with semi-automatic weapons often used in attacks on schools, workplaces, public spaces, stores, churches and other places where people gather.
"An assault weapon’s only purpose is to kill people efficiently," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY., the committee chairman. “It is time to protect our communities and to ban them once more.”
Republicans said the proposal was an attack on Second Amendment rights.
“Democrats know this legislation will not reduce violent crime or reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, but they are obsessed with attacking law-abiding Americans’ Second Amendment liberties,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee. “For over 30 years, the Democrats have been running a propaganda campaign to make people believe that ‘assault weapons’ are a specific class of firearms that no one needs.”
During the hearing, the committee listened to haunting audio of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during which 17 people were killed and 17 more wounded. Dozens of rapid-fire shots could be heard in the course of just 1 minute and 18 seconds along with the distressed screams of those trying to escape.
The hearing also comes in the wake of a July Fourth shooting at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, and mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas.
Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider whose district represents Highland Park, said that “getting these weapons of war off the streets, at the very least, will reduce the lethality, if not necessarily the frequency, of these just horrific fatalities that have devastated my community.”
Congress last month passed the most significant gun violence measure in decades, mandating background checks for gun buyers age 18 to 21 as well as allocating money for states to enact “red flag” laws.
But the bill fell far short of the steps that President Biden and Democrats say are needed.
“We’re paying for these weapons of war on our streets with the blood of our children sitting in our schools,” said Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed at a gas station in 2012.
Cicilline said that the protection of the Second Amendment is not without limits. He said the Democratic proposal is focused on assault-style rifles, which are not what the majority of guns law-abiding people buy and own.
“Dangerous military weapons that were created to fight on the battlefield and slaughter enemies do not belong in the neighborhoods and schools and movie theaters where we live,” he added.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.