Democratic Sen. Brian Frosh (standing L) discusses a Maryland gun-control bill with Sen. E.J. Pipkin (standing R), R-Cecil
Recent mass shootings like the massacre of first-graders and staffers at a Connecticut elementary school and the increasing deadliness of assault weapons makes a ban on those firearms more urgent than ever, the Senate author of a proposal to prohibit them said Wednesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made the remark as the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on her proposal, which would also bar ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.
But the bruising, difficult path through Congress that the proposal will have was illustrated when the Judiciary panel's top Republican challenged the need for the assault weapons ban. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned the ban's constitutionality and said it would take the weapons away from people who use them for self-defence, reports The Associated Press.
Further underscoring the roadblocks that gun control legislation faces in Congress, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that he opposes universal background checks for gun purchases, a central piece of President Barack Obama's plan for curbing gun violence. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told reporters that the proposal could lead to creation of a federal gun registry — which the Obama administration has said will not happen.
The hearing was the Senate's third since the Dec. 14 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six workers. The Judiciary panel could begin writing legislation as early as Thursday, but that session is likely to be delayed until next week.
Numerous relatives and neighbours of victims of Newtown, as well as other shootings at Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech filled the large hearing room.
At one point, Feinstein played a video showing how a bump fire slide, a piece of equipment added to an assault weapon, allows it to rapidly fire many rounds of ammunition, much as a machine gun would.
"The need for a federal ban has never been greater," Feinstein said.
Grassley expressed sympathy for gun violence victims, but said existing gun laws are not being adequately enforced, including background checks designed to prevent criminals from getting weapons.
"We should be sceptical about giving the Justice Department more laws to enforce" when it's not enforcing current ones, Grassley said.
Grassley said he believed Congress will eventually take action on boosting penalties for illegally trafficking guns, on more adequately keeping guns from people with mental problems, and encouraging states do a better job of reporting mental health records of potential gun buyers to the federal background check system.
At one point, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., used his questioning of Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn to argue that the current background check system is not being well enforced, since only a handful of the roughly 80,000 people annually who fail those checks are prosecuted for filing documents saying they qualify to own the weapons.
Uncharacteristically for a Senate hearing, Flynn interrupted the senator, saying, "I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally," a reference to the gun purchases that the background check system blocked last year. "That's what background check does."
His remark drew applause from spectators in the room.