The Senate Judiciary Committee passed an assault weapons ban, 10-8, on a straight party line vote, with all Democrats voting for it, and all Republicans voting against it. The ban, authored by Committee member Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali.) would make it illegal to sell semi-automatic weapons (which automatically reload) that can take a detachable magazine and have at least one more military feature, like a pistol grip. Those stipulations would ban 157 weapons currently on the market. Current owners of those weapons would be allowed to keep them, but future sales would be illegal. Feinstein's bill would also ban the sale of magazines that hold more than ten bullets.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) rhetorically asked Feinstein if this ban would violate the second amendment and be struck down by the Supreme Court. Feinstein shot back: “I am not a sixth grader. Congress is in the business of making the law. The Supreme Court interprets the law. If they strike down the law, they strike down the law."
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Feinstein is not being evasive here: the second amendment, contrary to popular belief, if charmingly ambiguous, stating only that the people have a right to "bear arms" and to "a well-regulated militia." How to define "arms" (all arms? does that include tanks and bombers?) and "well-regulated" is left open-ended. Some, like Cruz, show no limit on what they think should be allowed. Someone should ask him about the long-standing ban on sales of machine guns.
Guns are becoming the biggest, most passionate issue dividing congressional Republicans and Democrats (with a few red state Democrats leaning pro-gun). The Judiciary Committee's party-line vote exemplified this, as does the widely held belief that the bill will fail in the full senate, where it would need at least 5 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. It's also more or less a non-starter in the House, if it ever got far enough to receive a vote. Yet, despite all that, this bill is neither pointless nor meaningless.
For starters, controversial legislation often doesn't make it through on its first try, as both lawmakers and voters need time to get used to the idea. Beyond that, given the spat of high-profile shootings in recent months (Newtown, Aurora, Tucson come to mind immediately) and the much farther reaching steady flow of gun violence across America, this issue more than any other could use a hearing, in which America's senators have to take a side. Lastly, an ultimately futile charge for an assault weapons ban could lay the ground for universal background checks, which have a real chance of becoming law.
The real effects of this debate may be how they affect the 33 senate races and the 435 House races in 2014. Guns are an issue that can't be ignored anymore, and will be politically toxic in both directions. Gauging those political winds will be more difficult for politicians stuck in the middle than they ever have been.