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Sen. Dianne Feinstein Readies to Reintroduce Expired Assault Weapons Ban

December 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, has pledged to revive a law banning assault weapons at the opening of the next session of Congress. Gwen Ifill talks to Feinstein about the chances a new ban will pass after its 2004 expiration, and how it might eventually make weapons like those used in the Sandy Hook shooting less available.

GWEN IFILL: In the wake of the shootings, the debate in Washington turned immediately to how and whether new limits on gun ownership can, and should, be enacted.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has pledged to revive a law banning assault weapons. She is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And she joins us now.

Welcome, Senator.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: With half of the members getting an A rating from the National Rifle Association, do you have any sense that things will be different now for the assault weapons ban than it has been in the past?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, I have every sense that it’s an uphill road. It was in the past when we did it in the past.

I wrote that bill. My office wrote that bill. It went through. It wasn’t amended. It went through the Senate, the House. It was signed by the president. And it was the law for 10 years.

I think what is unique about this is, it’s really just one class of gun, the assault weapon. The assault weapon is developed for military purposes, to kill in close combat.

And it doesn’t belong in the streets of our cities. And it doesn’t belong where it can be picked up easily by a grievance killer, who can walk into a workplace, a mall, a theater, and now an elementary school and kill large numbers.

GWEN IFILL: Explain to our viewers how what you are planning to introduce would have changed what happened in Newtown, Conn.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, over time, that weapon would be much less available.

What we’re trying to do is ban the sale, the manufacture, the transfer, the importation of assault weapons. And it gets quite technical. And I won’t go into that right now.

Grandfathered weapons that people already have, subject those weapons either to licensing or to a trigger lock, and spell out those grandfathered weapons, which would be over 900 in the bill, so nobody can say, oh, we took our — their hunting weapon away.

Then I would be able to say, here’s your hunting weapon. It’s specifically exempted in the bill.

GWEN IFILL: So, we’re talking about a prospective law, not one…

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: That’s right. That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: … gun people already own?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It would ban approximately 100 weapons by actual name and then weapons by physical characteristics.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the politics of all of this.

Today, we saw three pro-gun-rights Democratic senators, Sen. Reid, Sen. Manchin, Sen. Warner, all say that what happened in NewtownConnecticut has changed everything. Do you have a sense that there’s a shift under way?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. I think this is the straw that broke the camel’s back, to be very honest with you, Gwen.

I don’t see how Americans can want, you know, a situation where a 20-year-old gets a gun from his mother, kills his mother, goes into a school, shoots his way through the glass, goes in and puts three to 11 bullets in 6-year-olds, 20 of them.

Now, if you just do an average of six bullets — five bullets, that’s 100 bullets. So it’s the big clip, drum or strip that is also banned from sale, manufacture, importation, transfer. So it’s the clip that enables you to have the firepower.

And I gather this particular Bushmaster, you can actually sort of dial down the ease with which you pull the trigger and its frequency. So you can just pump those bullets out in a very few seconds.

GWEN IFILL: Do you — have you gotten any sense of a change of heart among the Republican members of the Senate?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I haven’t had a chance to talk to Republicans. I certainly will be doing that.

I have really kind of been busy just fielding calls, which is unusual, some 20 calls to my house yesterday at home and calls today from members of the House and others that want to help with this.

GWEN IFILL: You called the White House today to talk to the president.


GWEN IFILL: Has that conversation happened?


GWEN IFILL: And do you believe he support you on this?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I haven’t gotten a call back. But I will be persistent. I’m trying now to call his chief of staff to say, please, may I speak with the president briefly.

GWEN IFILL: You — gun control activists have said that they believe that the president’s first term was a failure.

And people who are gun rights activists have said that the president wants to legislate the Second Amendment out of existence. Which is true? Or is neither true?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Oh, neither is true.

I think the president now has an open mind. At least, I hope he has. I think the fact that I have authored something before which became the law hopefully will have some credibility with him.

And we’re very happy to sit down with his staff, which is what I want to offer, to go over the specifics of the legislation, options, and get his views. I would like to do that sooner, rather than later, because we’re working with others.

I want to work with members in this body, members in the other body, and try to see that, by the beginning of the year, we have got something where there is some very good support.

GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who support the right to own arms that this is the camel’s nose under the tent, and, the next thing, you will be after concealed-carry weapons, you will be after other kinds of gun rights?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, that’s just not true.

It wasn’t true with the prior bill that was the law for 10 years. And I just think, candidly, that dog doesn’t hunt.

GWEN IFILL: Why shouldn’t it be true? Why wouldn’t you want to go after those other laws?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Because that’s not what I have done in the past. And it’s not what I’m doing right now.

GWEN IFILL: How much do — as we have this debate now, how much are we focusing on guns, and how much are we focusing or should we be focusing on the things that drive people to use guns in these horrific ways?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, I think you concentrate on both. You concentrate on mental illness and what we can do. You concentrate on safety in schools and those kinds of things.

But small children have a basic right to go to a school and feel safe. And these guns, because they kill large numbers of people very quickly, they aren’t used for hunting, they aren’t hunting weapons. You don’t need them for defense. They are military-style weapons. And they don’t belong in the streets of our cities or our towns.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Sen. Feinstein, we have been here before. The president, as he said last night, has spoken at four different memorial services for shooting victims since he’s been president.

And each time, there’s been discussion that this is the moment — especially after a congresswoman was shot, this is the moment when everything will change. Why is this the moment?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, this is the moment because I think people have had it. They have had it in fear.

You know, look at Aurora. That man came in with a 100-round clip — excuse me, drum. If that drum hadn’t jammed, he would have killed many more people. Look at Virginia Tech. Look at Jonestown. Look at — Jonesboro, rather. Look at Columbine. Look at what’s been happening. It’s got to stop.

Our schools have to be safe places. These guns are the guns that the grievance killer, the gangs, that people who want to do real damage look for and find very easy to obtain in our society. And we need to change that. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, thank you so much.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: An administration official told the NewsHour today that the president began talking with White House staff, the vice president and some members of the Cabinet about ways the country can respond to the tragedy in Newtown.