Feinstein Plans to Reintroduce Assault Weapons Ban Next Year

Posted on 17 December 2012

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By David Dayen

Dianne Feinstein, author of the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired under President George W. Bush in 2004, told Meet the Press that she plans to reintroduce the law on the first day of the new Congress in 2013. The bill seeks to respond to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, one of several this year.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, said she intended to introduce a gun control bill on the first day of the next Congress. Paired with a twin version in the House, Feinstein's law would take aim at limiting the sale, transfer and possession of assault weapons, along with the capacity of high-capacity magazines.

"It can be done," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press." The senator, a proponent of gun control, said she expected Obama to offer his public support for the law.

Some gun safety advocates hope that the Newtown shooting will prove a catalyzing event. Public opinion is actually on the side of such measures as preventing the manufacture, possession and sale of assault weapons, ensuring that every gun purchaser gets a background check (right now up to 40% of guns sold, particularly at trade shows, do not accompany a background check), and banning high-capacity ammunition clips. Those polls were all taken before the Newtown shooting.

However, the perceived power of the industry trade group, the National Rifle Association - not the actual power, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made clear on the same program today, but the perception in Washington of their power - usually forestalls any action or even debate on these issues. As just one example of their imagined power, the Justice Department worked up a series of plans, in the wake of the mass shooting that wounded Arizona Congressmember Gabby Giffords, to improve the background check system. These recommendations included increasing penalties for "straw purchasers" who buy guns for others, and tightening rules so that everyone who purchases a gun gets subject to the background check. However, DoJ then shelved the idea, wary of the politics around guns.

Back around March 2011, officials said, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked Christopher Schroeder, then the assistant attorney general for legal policy, to examine gun control and background checks.

Mr. Schroeder and his aides, working with the criminal division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, spent the next year developing ideas and recommendations. They also met with gun-safety advocates and police chiefs, and attended conferences about the F.B.I. database, known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

They were said to have presented their recommendations in a series of meetings a year to nine months ago with senior department officials, including Mr. Holder and his deputy, James Cole. But the proposals were largely filed away without action amid a harsh political environment against gun control.

While the President has offered rhetorical support to renewing the assault weapons ban, the only actual legislation on guns passed in his first term was a measure to make it easier for gun owners to carry their weapons in national parks.

Meanwhile, you have right-wingers like Louie Gohmert, whose contribution to the debate is that the school principal should have been armed with an M4. In no mass shooting of the last thirty years has a single one been stopped by a civilian with a gun (in fact all the armed civilians who tried to intervene in a mass shooting have been either gravely wounded or killed, without stopping the shooter), and the increase in the frequency of mass shootings in the past three decades correlates with the increase in the prevalence of firearms.

It's important to distinguish between policies that stop gun violence in general and policies that stop mass shootings; there is a distinction to be made. In the latter, at least some focus should be placed on the catastrophe that is the US mental health system. A viral blog post from the mother of a violent, mentally ill child has opened this conversation a bit. It's easier for a poor person to acquire a gun than it is to get mental health treatment, and with the past several years of austerity at the state and local level, this problem has only exacerbated. There are precious few public programs that cover mental health, and out-of-pocket costs are astronomical, making it an expensive proposition for middle-class families to treat.

I like this modest proposal:

We tax cigarettes to offset some of the social costs of tobacco use. This is type of Pigovian Tax.

We could tax bullets to offset the direct costs of America's weapons glut, but it's hard to make up for murder.

Better to prevent the murders.

So tax bullets to pay for better mental health care.

The hope of a balanced conversation on gun safety is pretty remote. But at least some leaders are willing to try in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown.

David Dayen is a Santa Monica-based writer, speaker and political activist. He blogs at Firedoglake, where this article originally appeared.

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