TOPICS > Arts

Lacking Strong Democratic Support, Senate Pulls Plug on Assault Weapons Ban

March 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
While state governments have begun to adopt new gun control legislation, the gun fight in Washington has slowed. Judy Woodruff gets an update from Washington Post reporter Ed O'Keefe, including a look at the status of the universal background check provision and what the role Newtown families are playing behind the scenes.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next: the latest on the battles playing out at both the federal and state levels to tighten gun laws. 

Judy Woodruff has our update. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: For gun control supporters, today’s signing ceremony in Colorado spelled a significant victory in a Western state where many people like their guns. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a series of measures requiring new background checks for private and online gun sales. The law also limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. But it was a bittersweet moment as well. Before that ceremony, Hickenlooper remembered his friend and the state’s head of corrections, Tom Clements, who was shot and killed at his home yesterday evening. There are no known suspects. 

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, D-Colo.: Tom Clements dedicated his life to being a public servant, to making our state better, to making the world a better place. And he is going to be deeply, deeply missed. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: The passage of the new law comes eight months after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. And it’s the latest example of a larger battle playing out in state legislatures around the country. 

More than 3,000 pieces of gun-related legislation are being considered in statehouses. But even as momentum picks up in some states, a similar push on Capitol Hill has slowed. Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged one bill, an assault weapons ban crafted by California’s Dianne Feinstein, didn’t have enough support to move forward. 

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nevada: But, right now her amendment, using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes. I — that’s not 60. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: A disappointed Feinstein later said on CNN that she — quote — “will not play dead on the issue,” adding Reid assured her she will have a chance to offer the ban as an amendment to a larger bill. 

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: If it’s an amendment, that is not a symbolic vote. 

I did the bill in 1994 on the floor as an amendment. It enacted a law. It went on to the House. It was enacted. What Senator Reid told me is that I would have an opportunity for a vote. I take him at his word. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, Reid and Senate Democrats are trying to find a way to get other measures passed. That includes an expansion of background checks, new penalties for gun trafficking, and for so-called straw purchases, when other individuals buy guns for those who aren’t authorized to own them. Reid is aiming for votes some time after the Easter recess. 

But there’s still little, if any, Republican support for that effort. 

For more, I am joined by Ed O’Keefe, who has been reporting on this subject for The Washington Post. 

Welcome back to the NewsHour, Ed. 

First of all, Majority Leader Reid said he was pulling the plug on this because it just didn’t have enough votes. Why has it been so hard to get the votes for the assault weapons ban? 

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, it basically boils down to campaign politics. 

You have got about 15 Senate Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014, and they hail mostly from states in the South and the Midwest and the West that have stronger gun cultures than most. And so asking those moderate Democrats who are in states that have, you know, strong gun cultures to vote for things on a ban on almost 160 specific assault rifles is a bridge too far for Reid, who understands that in order to maintain his majority in the Senate, he has got to see most, if not all, of those senators reelected. 

Already, it is a difficult prospect, and it would be made more difficult, Reid fears, if they were asked to vote on this. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when Senator Feinstein says that Reid has promised hear, in essence, he will let her introduce an amendment, there will be a vote on the amendment, what are the prospects it’s going to get any easier then? 

ED O’KEEFE: Well, as Reid said very specifically yesterday, quite astonishingly, he says he doesn’t think it has even 40 votes.

But what it will do is fulfill a promise that he has made on behalf of the president to hold an up-or-down vote on this measure, even if it doesn’t have the support. It has broad support in most polling, polling that the Washington Post has done, that Pew has done and other groups.

But just considering the breakdown of the Senate, where you need 60 votes in order to end debate on something, and then about that number — well, you really need just about 50 for final passage, but in order to get over the procedural hurdle in the Senate, you need 60.

And though there are 55 Senate Democrats, at least 15, maybe 20 of them are not comfortable voting for this. And there certainly aren’t enough Republicans either. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So public opinion polls don’t translate into votes in the Senate? 

ED O’KEEFE: At this point, it doesn’t.

There’s some hope that in the two-week recess that is approaching, that perhaps these gun control groups, whether it’s a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or a bunch of new grassroots organizations that are led by parents, frankly, who are outraged about what happened at Newtown, that there’s some hope that if they can meet with lawmakers in the coming weeks and try to put some pressure on them and remind them that they also vote, that perhaps you will see some people come back from the recess in the mood to perhaps consider voting for this. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how does the lobbying by these gun control — these groups that favor gun control, Ed, stack up against the NRA, the parents of Newtown, the Mayor Bloomberg organization and others? 

ED O’KEEFE: You know, while the mayors group is very well-funded and backed by dozens of big-city mayors across the country and police chiefs who show up here on Capitol Hill regularly, what’s less clear at this point, still, is really whether they have the money and the political power behind them. 

We haven’t had an election since Newtown, so it’s difficult to gauge. What Bloomberg’s group has said and what these parent groups have said is, come next year, if you’re somebody who faces a difficult reelection and you didn’t vote for this, we also now will put up money. We will put manpower in your district or in your state to get you kicked out, much like the NRA has done for years with lawmakers that vote one way or the other. 

I had a conversation with one activist this week who said that, in meetings that her group has had with both Democrats and Republicans, the lawmakers and their staffs have said great. Great to see you. It’s about time you showed up, because when it comes to guns, the only group we ever really hear from is the NRA. We don’t hear from the other side. 

So, there has been very well-organized opposition to the status quo. And the thinking is the personal stories of these parents who have been affected, the concerns of parents who don’t want to see this happen again, plus the mayors, might turn the tide. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. 

So, if the assault weapons ban is a bridge too far, what about other pieces of legislation that have been proposed, the background checks, the gun trafficking penalties and so forth? 

ED O’KEEFE: Right.

Well, at this point, the gun trafficking penalties is seen as the one that has the most bipartisan support. It does a very simple thing. It basically makes the practice of someone knowingly buying a weapon for someone ineligible to have one a federal crime for the first time. This is something that has been asked for from law enforcement officials for years. It would make it a federal crime. 

It has Republican support, not only in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but believed also in the broader Senate. The problem is you talk to police officers, police chiefs across this country, they say, look, we can’t just have gun trafficking. We also need an expansion of the background check program, because if you do that, you can essentially close the incentive on somebody to go out and make a straw purchase.

Plus, you make it easier for us to track gun crimes in the future. At this point, there’s a Democratic proposal to expand the background check program that would encompass all private and commercial sales. That is seen as a bridge too far again for some Republicans who say, look, there should be exemptions for if, or example, a father wants to hand over or sell a rifle to his son or to a cousin or to a close neighbor across the street. 

There are talks under way in which that type of exception might be permitted, but as part of those talks, Democrats want to establish a record-keeping system for those private noncommercial transactions, saying that they also need to be tracked, just in case that weapon one day ends up being used in a crime.

Republicans turn around and say no. That’s akin to creating a national gun registry. That would violate the Second Amendment. We just can’t do it. In the next two weeks, again, during this recess, the hope is among those tracking this that there can be some kind of bipartisan consensus and that something can be put together in time for votes after the recess. But, look, they have been talking for months, and there has been no agreement so far. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed, just quickly, before we go, back to the beginning of the segment, we talked about what’s going on in the states, Colorado passing legislation, New York, other states, a number of other states looking at this. Could the states end up moving more quickly than the Congress? 

ED O’KEEFE: Certainly. 

And many already have. New York, for example, already establishing a much stronger assault weapons ban. And the fact that a purple state like Colorado is moving forward is also seen as encouraging to gun control advocates. You’re seeing movement, successful movement in places like Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California, the bigger urban states that suffer from this gun crime most especially.

But it’s faltering in places like Minnesota, where they would like to see some progress, and Washington State. So, yes, some states may get ahead of the federal government, but certainly not all of them. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, thank you. 

ED O’KEEFE: Great to be with you.