Senate Democrats face new pressure to pass assault weapons ban

Democrats in Congress are under new pressure to advance an assault weapons ban after a 21-year-old gunman killed seven people at a July 4 parade in Highland Park.

The Senate just approved a bipartisan gun-safety bill last month that was signed into law by President Biden, but even at the time it was seen as an effort insufficient to truly cut into gun violence.

The narrow legislation won support from all 50 of the Senate’s Democrats and 15 Senate Republicans, but was opposed by most of the GOP in the House and Senate.

And Democrats themselves are divided over an assault weapons ban, which could be a risky vote for vulnerable Democratic incumbents in swing states. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sidestepped such a vote after deadly shootings at a Buffalo supermarket and Uvalde, Texas elementary school, opting to work with Republicans on more modest reforms.  

That strategy resulted in the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which provided money for states to administer red-flag laws and enhanced background checks for gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21.  

It’s unclear whether that bill would have done anything to prevent the violence in Highland Park, Ill., where a 21-year-old has confessed to the shootings, according to officials. Robert Crimo III was accused of killing seven people with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, an assault-style rifle that carries 30 rounds of military-caliber 5.56mm NATO/.223.  

Vice President Kamala Harris led the charge for more action on Tuesday during a visit to Chicago to speak to a teachers’ convention, telling the National Education Association: “Congress needs to have the courage to act and renew the assault weapons ban.” 

“An assault weapon is designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly,” she argued.  

The vice president’s rallying cry was followed Thursday by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee and a member of Schumer’s leadership team.  

“Enough is enough. Reinstate the assault weapons ban. We can save lives,” tweeted Klobuchar, a presidential candidate in 2020.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another member of the leadership team, is an original co-sponsor of the Senate’s Assault Weapons Ban, which is supported by 37 Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).  

A Democratic aide said the Judiciary Committee, which Durbin chairs, has discussed assault weapons and high-capacity magazines at several of its nine hearings on gun violence.  

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D), an Army combat veteran who lost her legs in Iraq, said reviewing the video of Highland Park shooting reminded her of being in a war zone.  

“Let me tell you that the last time I heard a weapon with that capacity firing that rapidly on Fourth of July was Iraq,” she said.  

Duckworth also supports a national assault weapons ban.  

“No one needs a 50round drum. No one needs a 30-round magazine. No one needs a weapon of war on our streets,” Duckworth tweeted Thursday.  

Democrats are finding themselves embroiled once again in a debate over whether to bring an assault weapons ban and high-capacity magazine ban — as well as universal background checks — to the Senate and House floors a few months before a difficult midterm election.  

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, said he preferred to move legislation that had a chance of passing and saving lives and predicted an assault weapons ban would get little Republican support.  

“I think right now we just need to focus on trying to see if we can get some Republicans to support us on something common sense,” he said in May.

An assault weapons ban has no chance of passing because Republicans will block it in the Senate with a filibuster and it’s not even guaranteed to get the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus.  

Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Mark Warner (Va.) voted against an assault weapons ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 2013. So did Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats. 

Warner, however, is now a cosponsor of Feinstein’s new assault weapons ban introduced in March of last year.  

Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady, a gun-violence prevention advocacy group, said an assault weapons ban probably has the votes to pass in the House but the path forward in the Senate is unclear.   

“Certainly we’ve heard enough Democrats and Republicans calling for this that I suspect the House could pass it and send it to the Senate. Then the Senate has to figure out what they’re going to do,” he said.  

“We do live in a reality where the negotiations for the bipartisan [gun-safety] package started at a place where universal background checks were off the table. So I have to imagine there’s daylight where this package was and where an assault weapons ban would be and it probably comes down to a procedural filibuster that requires 60 votes” to bypass, he said.  

But even if Senate passage of an assault weapons ban is highly, highly unlikely, Heyne says Congress still needs to tackle the issue. 

“We absolutely need to deal with assault weapons. They are what make our mass casualty shootings so regular here in America, so uniquely American when compared to the industrial nations around the world,” he said. “It’s long past time that we reinstate the assault weapons ban and pass a more improved assault weapons ban, like the ones that have been introduced.” 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in early June that the House would have a hearing and committee mark up of an assault weapons ban but the House debate was soon eclipsed by bipartisan Senate negotiations over the gun safety bill.  

In those talks, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), immediately rejected proposals to implement universal background checks, ban assault weapons for people between the ages of 18 and 21, and to ban high-capacity magazines. 

Schumer has expressed his reluctance to hold accountability votes on gun-control legislation, in which Democrats bring a bill to the floor that has little chance of passing. Such votes are risky because while they fire up the Democratic base, they also risk a back-lash from Second Amendment-driven voters.  

The Democratic leader told colleague on the floor after the Uvalde massacre that he was more interested in working with Republicans than holding political messaging votes on the floor on assault weapons and high-capacity clips.  

But with prominent Democratic leaders renewing calls for an assault weapons ban, Schumer will be under pressure to address it before the midterm election.  

Nick Wilson, the senior director of gun violence prevention at Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank and advocacy group, said his organization is pushing for Congress to vote on an assault weapons ban before the end of the year.

“We think this is gaining momentum in the House, where the bill now has 210 cosponsors,” he said. “The Senate will continue to be a challenge, not just on gun safety measures but all types of important legislation.

Wilson said the passage of the gun safety bill last month and the expected confirmation of Steve Dettelbach to head the ATF before the August recess “shows that progress is still possible.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar assault weapons ban Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Gun control Highland Park shooting Joe Biden Kamala Harris red-flag laws Tammy Duckworth

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