By Mike Lillis - 12/19/12 08:27 PM EST
House Democrats on Wednesday escalated their calls for a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, like those used by the shooter in the Newtown, Conn., massacre last week.
The idea is hardly new, but the lawmakers think the sheer enormity of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary – where 20 of the 26 victims were grade-school children – has shifted the politics of gun reform to the extent that the bill could pass after years languishing without a vote.
"If anyone could have reached out to that shooter and pulled away the assault magazine that he had … we would have done so. So why wouldn't we officially take that magazine out of the hands of a shooter?" Pelosi asked at a press briefing in the Capitol.
"We understand the issues about mental health and the violence in our society," she added, "but to make sure that the people with impaired judgment do not have access to these high-capacity clips we have to make sure that no one has access to these high-capacity clips."
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), the bill's chief sponsor, lamented that it takes an unthinkable tragedy to launch a national debate about firearms and public safety. But if anything can move Congress to act, she said, it's the public outcry in the wake of the Newtown massacre.
"Everybody's asking, 'Is this time different?' " asked McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son seriously injured in a 1993 shooting on a Long Island commuter train. "It is. And that is mainly because of the victims."
The comments arrive on the same day that President Obama launched a new task force to examine the causes of gun violence and propose what he called "real reforms" by the end of January.
"The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing," Obama said Wednesday, tapping Vice President Biden to lead the group.
The Democrats have an uphill climb, however, as the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over gun issues, indicated this week that he has no intention of moving tougher firearm laws.
"We’re going to take a look at what happened there [in Newtown] and what can be done to help avoid it in the future," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told Roll Call on Tuesday, "but gun control is not going to be something that I would support."
The Democrats have been quick to blame Republicans for Congress's silence on gun reform issues in recent years. Yet when the Democrats controlled the House in the last Congress, they held no hearings on the issue – a dynamic that infuriated some in the party.
Pelosi defended that strategy Wednesday, saying she didn't want to put her troops in the position of making difficult votes that never had a chance of passing the Senate.
"Our members are very courageous, they'll walk the plank on any tough vote," Pelosi said. "But I don't want them to walk the plank on something that's not going to become the law. And that's what the situation was.
"If there was no prospect of success, we wanted the members to be here to continue to make the fight, so that when there was a prospect of success, they would be here, rather than being cleared out by the NRA," she added, referring to the National Rifle Association. "We already saw that happen when we lost in 1994."
Wednesday's press conference, attended by nearly three dozen Democrats, is an indication that party leaders now see that prospect of success.
"We think, we hope, we believe and we are working to make sure that this carnage has changed the equation so that we can change [the law] now," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
The gun-violence issue has been back under the microscope since Friday, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza – who reportedly suffered from mental disabilities – stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 26 people before taking his own life. Twenty of the victims were six- or seven-year-old schoolchildren, while the others were teachers or administrators.
Lanza's weapon of choice was a military-style assault rifle with high-capacity ammunition clips – the same firearm used by James Holmes, the shooter in July's deadly rampage at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
Before driving to the school, Lanza had also shot and killed his mother with another rifle, bringing the death toll to 28.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Vietnam veteran who was named this week to head a House study of gun-violence prevention, said high-capacity clips have no purpose outside of shooting large numbers of people.
"I've been a hunter all my life and there's no reason to have a magazine that holds 30 shells," Thompson said. "It's an assault magazine – that's all it can be."
McCarthy's bill, which would limit ammunition magazines to 10 bullets, was introduced in January 2011, just weeks after a mass shooting near Tucson, Ariz., killed six people and injured another 13, including former-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who retired earlier this year to focus on her recovery.
The 1994 assault weapons ban included the same 10-bullet cap, but that law expired in 2004.
Some opponents of gun reform have suggested that the solution to preventing gun violence is not tougher laws, but more guns. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), for instance, said Sunday that he wished Sandy Hook's principal, who was killed in Friday's attack, had had an M-4 assault rifle to take Lanza's "head off before he [could] kill those precious kids."
Gun-law reformers have rejected that notion outright, arguing that more guns lead only to more shooting deaths.
"A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a suicide or a murder than it is to be used in self-defense," Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Wednesday. "The notion that more Americans … 'packing heat' will make us safer is not founded in reality, in facts or in history. It is founded in the fantasy of testosterone-laden individuals who have blood on their hands for articulating that idea."
The NRA, which has been largely silent since last week's shooting, says it will hold "a major news conference" Friday, though it did not offer details.
"The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again," the group said Tuesday in a brief statement.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), one of the leading proponents of the ban on high-capacity clips, said McCarthy's bill has attracted the support of 21 additional co-sponsors this week alone – though none of them is a Republican.