Panel approves assault weapons ban; Cruz, Feinstein get heated

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The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a ban on the sale and manufacture of more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features Thursday in a party-line vote.

The 10-8 vote came after a heated exchange between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who Feinstein scolded for giving her a "lecture" on the Constitution.

It’s the fourth piece of gun control legislation to make it out of committee and perhaps the one with the longest odds of becoming law, given opposition from Republicans to a new ban on the weapons.

Committee Democrats first beat back four amendments offered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would have carved out exceptions to the ban. Cornyn asked for exceptions for victims of domestic violence, military veterans and those living on Southwest border states that he said were affected by Mexican gang violence.

Feinstein, the sponsor of the underlying bill, called the amendments “an effort to nip it and tuck it and create exceptions.”

Cornyn said it would Feinstein’s bill would leave citizens with “peashooters” and outgunned by criminals.

Feinstein became furious at one point with Cruz, who she saw as lecturing to her about the meaning of the Constitution and why the framers of that document used certain language.

“I'm not a sixth-grader,” she told the freshman Tea Party favorite. “I'm not a lawyer, but after 20 years, I've been up close and personal to the Constitution. I have great respect for it. ... It's fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I've been here for a long time. I've passed on a number of bills. I've studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well-educated, and I thank you for the lecture.”

Cruz responded by asking Feinstein if she also thought she had the power to interpret the First Amendment by deciding what books people could read.

Feinstein said she was happy that child pornography was illegal, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stepped in, bringing up controversies in Cruz’s home state over the content of its textbooks.

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) emotions also ran high over Cornyn’s amendment making an exception for residents of border states. He argued that the federal government hadn’t done its duty to protect the borders and that the 10th Amendment gave states the right to step in such cases.

Whether the assault weapons ban is constitutional was a primary focus of the hearing, and Grassley argued that the burden of proof should be on those looking to limit rights, not on his GOP colleagues who were on the side of existing rights. Republican opponents of the bill also said it addressed “cosmetic” concerns about the guns that will have no real impact.

Judiciary on Tuesday approved a bill to require universal background checks and as a measure aimed at increasing security at schools. Last week the committee passed a bill cracking down on the illegal trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will now decide when and how to bring the bills to the floor for a vote. 

Reid said Thursday he has yet to decide whether to include the assault weapons ban in the package.

"I'm going to talk to Leahy about that," he told reporters after a leadership press conference. "I'm not going to worry about it here. Everybody will have their chance."

Some Democrats worry the controversial ban could sink a broader slate of gun laws if it is included. The alternative would be to consider it separately from legislation to expand background checks and to crack down on the illegal trafficking of firearms.

Calls to renew a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons intensified after the December killings of 26 people — including 20 children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Feinstein closed the markup with graphic imagery from the Sandy Hook shooting and acknowledged the tough road her legislation faced.

“The road is uphill,” she said. “I fully understand that.”

— Published at 11:39 a.m. and updated at 1:44 p.m.

— Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.