Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spoke to the press on March 19 about why he set aside the legislation that would ban assault weapons for now and will focus on proposals to reduce gun violence that could win more support.
(CBS News) The uphill climb to pass an assault weapons ban grew steeper yesterday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced he was setting the legislation aside for now to focus proposals to reduce gun violence that could win more support. But rather than put up a fight, some of the biggest gun control proponents are focusing this week on building support for other key proposals.
"The assault weapons ban was always an uphill battle this session," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement. "As we have known all along, we face a marathon effort and not a sprint."
It was the tragedy in Blumenthal's home state last year -- the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. -- that sparked the ongoing debate over reducing gun violence. Blumenthal and other lawmakers have been working on a number of proposals to reduce gun violence, covering everything from combating illegal gun trafficking and enhancing school safety to strengthening background checks and improving the mental health system.
Reid insisted yesterday that all of these measures deserved a vote -- but that including some of them in the main legislative package brought to the Senate floor would sink the entire effort. The main bill that Reid will introduce will have to get at least 60 votes to get past a GOP-led filibuster, he explained. So by starting with a pared-down bill, Reid said he could at least get a gun control measure on the Senate floor. At that point, the assault weapons ban and other less popular measures could be voted on as amendments.
"I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there," Reid said. "People are deserving of votes on their issues they feel so strongly about."
The chances of an assault weapons ban passing as an amendment, however, look dim. Reid said there are less than 40 votes of support for the measure in the Senate at this point.
The proposal, authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee last week with only Democratic support. It passed following a heated exchange between Feinstein and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. After Cruz lectured Feinstein about the Second Amendment, the California senator snapped at him, "I am not a sixth grader!"
In the Judiciary Committee, Feinstein's assault weapons ban was combined with legislation banning high-capacity magazine clips . The ban on high-capacity clips is important to gun safety advocates who argue that it is among the most surefire ways to prevent shooters from killing dozens of people within minutes.
Now that Reid will only put the assault weapons ban up for a vote as an amendment, some advocates for gun control want the ban on high-capacity clips to be put up as a separate amendment -- essentially acknowledging it has a better chance of passing if it's not tied to the assault weapons ban.
"Families in Newtown and across the country deserve a robust debate on efforts to reduce gun violence," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. "While the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 is an incredibly important part of this debate, I continue to believe that a more targeted ban on high capacity magazines is an equally effective way to reduce casualties in episodes of mass violence. I believe we need to have a separate floor vote on a high capacity magazine restriction, and I look forward to working with other senators in the coming weeks to develop a reasonable restriction on large volume magazines that can gain bipartisan support."
Meanwhile, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns is continuing its focus on another proposal -- universal background checks. The group yesterday released a new ad featuring law enforcement leaders calling for background checks for all gun sales. The ad aired on cable nationally yesterday and will air in Washington, D.C. cable the rest of this week, as well as on broadcast in the home states of some of the ad's participants.
"Our nation's law enforcement officials know better than anyone what it takes to protect our communities from gun violence, and they know that background checks help save lives," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in a statement. "They have dedicated their lives to protecting the public, and as Congress debates our nation's gun laws, their voices deserve to be heard."
There are multiple background check proposals in the works right now, and it's possible Reid could use one of them as his main piece of legislation. However, before Reid could could count on a background check bill to meet the 60-vote threshold, Democrats and Republicans would have to resolve some sticking points. Specifically, they would have to resolve concerns from members on both sides of the aisle who do not want to create a national gun registry.
Not everyone is ready to abandon the assault weapons ban. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has rallied public support for the meaure, said in a statement that it's still backing the proposals endorsed by President Obama.
"We continue to believe in the comprehensive set of reforms put forth by the President and the set of bills that passed through the Committee," a spokesperson told CBSNews.com in an email statement. "As the president said in his State of the Union address, gun violence victims deserve a vote. We look forward to the debate in the U.S. Senate and we still believe that all of the bills passed through Committee should be part of the solution."
Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CNN of the assault weapons ban, "We're going to find the votes."
"As the president said in his State of the Union... what we want is votes on each of these issues to include the assault weapons ban," McDonough said. "There will be amendments, I'm sure, from Sen. Feinstein, who's been a champion of this now, over the course of decades because of her own experience in San Francisco and what she's seen, frankly, across this country."
He added, "So we're going to work on this, we're going to find the votes, and it deserves a vote -- let's see if we can get it done."
A CBS News poll conducted last month showed that a majority of Americans support a national ban on semi-automatic "assault" weapons, but the idea has faced fierce opposition from groups like the National Rifle Association. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre made clear at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month that his group isn't backing down in its fight against gun control measures. "They can call me crazy, or anything else they want, but the NRA's nearly five million members, and America's 100 million gun owners, will not back down, not ever," he said.
Some conservative pundits, meanwhile, suggested that Reid's move to set the assault weapons ban aside shows that Reid isn't really listening to the president.
"This is also a timely reminder about how lacking in influence is the president, no matter how the media slobbers over his speeches," wrote the Washington Post's conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin. "This is not a president who is good at persuading the opposition, or even his own side.
Stephanie Condon, CBS News