Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg
WASHINGTON — California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has reintroduced an assault weapons ban in the wake of massacres in a Texas church on Sunday and during an outdoor concert in Las Vegas last month.
Feinstein said she and 22 other Senate Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris, introduced the legislation “for one reason: so that after every mass shooting with a military-style assault weapon, the American people will know that a tool to reduce these massacres is sitting in the Senate, ready for debate and a vote.”
Under Feinstein’s proposal, people who already own such weapons would be allowed to keep them, but within 90 days, their transfer to another person would be required to go through a licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer.
The bill includes, among other things, a ban on “bump stocks” that allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire as rapidly as a fully automatic one; prohibits the transfer of high-capacity magazines; and requires a background check for any transfer of a gun covered by the bill.
Feinstein has introduced assault weapons bans three times. Her original assault weapons ban was narrowly enacted into law in 1994, with support from three former presidents, Republicans Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter. President Bill Clinton signed the ban. But to win Senate passage, Feinstein had to include a 10-year sunset clause, which allowed the ban to expire during the George W. Bush administration.
By then, opposition to gun control had become firmly entrenched as a bedrock position in the Republican Party, all but ending any chance for restrictive gun legislation as long as the GOP controlled either Congress or the presidency.
Feinstein tried to reintroduce controls on semiautomatic rifles before and after the first ban expired. Both attempts failed. She tried again after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2013, but that measure failed 40-60 in the Senate.
Although the effectiveness of her original ban has been debated, she said Wednesday that it “was just starting to show an effect” when it expired.
Efforts by Feinstein and others to ban bump stocks have similarly foundered in Congress since the Las Vegas shooting, where gunman Stephen Paddock used such a device to commit the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The shooting left 63 people dead and more than 500 people injured.
Opposition to gun control “was a peripheral issue 30 or 40 years ago,” but now is an ideological marker for those who identify themselves as conservatives, said William Vizzard, a professor emeritus with the division of criminal justice at Sacramento State University who has spent 50 years studying gun laws and violence. He sees no chance of gun control legislation passing the Republican-controlled Congress or being signed by President Trump, who cultivated the support of gun owners during his campaign.
At this point, Vizzard said, any effort to limit the number of automatic rifles also has to confront the problem of the enormous inventory of such weapons now in private hands.
“We’ve pumped so damn many of these black rifles now into the population that anything that preserves them retroactively means there’s going to be a huge population floating around at gun shows and sales,” he said. Moreover, a meaningful ban on semiautomatic weapons should include the many millions of semiautomatic pistols now in existence, which he said “would generate that much more resistance.”
No one knows exactly how many of the more than 300 million guns held in the U.S. are semiautomatic, but rough estimates put them in the millions.
Feinstein acknowledged the problem, but said, “We’ve got to start somewhere.”
The National Rifle Association is using the massacre of 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas, to buttress its argument that more guns are the way to stop gun violence. The group is showcasing on its website the armed civilian who wounded the shooter as he was leaving the church, agreeing with the group’s slogan, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
Carolyn Lochhead is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org