WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday voted to advance a new ban on certain types of semi-automatic rifles they say are appropriate for war zones but have no place on American streets.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to send to the floor a bill that would ban semi-automatic rifles and pistols that can accept a detachable magazine and feature particular kinds of grips, stocks and barrels.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the committee’s chairman, described such guns as “assault weapons” and said that a similar ban adopted in 1994 saved countless lives before Republicans successfully pushed to let it expire a decade later.
“Since then we have seen the predictable results. Mass shootings have increased exponentially and our public spaces — schools, movie theaters, supermarkets, houses of worship, parades, you name it, have all become vulnerable to attack,” Nadler said. “An assault weapon’s only purpose is to kill people efficiently. It is time to protect our communities and to ban them once more.”
Republicans criticized the proposal for what they described as a trampling of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And they dismissed it as ineffective in dealing with rampant gun violence, which they attributed to factors such as cultural rot or insufficient support for law enforcement.
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, said his side has opposed a slew of Democratic gun proposals because they are a direct violation of the Constitution.
“The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed — plain and simple,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t say the ‘right to keep and bear muskets shall not be infringed.’ It doesn’t say ‘shall not be infringed unless Democrats say this weapon looks so scary we have to get rid of it.’ It doesn’t say that at all. It says ‘shall not be infringed.’”
AR-15-style rifles and similar weapons have been used in many horrifying mass shootings over the years. A recent spate of mass shootings, including the massacre in Uvalde that left 19 children and two teachers dead, has ramped up pressure for Congress to act.
That pressure helped break a 30-year legislative stalemate on Capitol Hill as lawmakers passed a bipartisan package of modest gun law changes, school safety measures and mental health funding.
But advocates for more gun restrictions want to see additional legislation such as the bill debated by the committee on Wednesday.
Felix and Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi was killed in Uvalde, sat in the audience for much of Tuesday’s session.
They appeared via video feed at a House hearing last month, offering heartbreaking testimony and a call for federal action on guns, including a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines.
Republicans at times characterized features that would get a particular gun banned under the proposed bill as cosmetic and said such firearms are not functionally different from other guns that would not be banned.
Democrats said features prohibited by the bill help make the guns easier to transport, conceal and stabilize, ultimately making them more efficient at killing people. They also noted the bill included protections for many specific models and for guns lawfully owned currently.
Border security, police funding and more
The committee sent the bill to the floor late Wednesday after hours of debate and rejection of a slew of Republican amendments. Texas members of the committee split along party lines with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing.
Republican amendments pushed the debate into areas such as abortion, immigration and police funding.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, strongly opposes the legislation but offered an amendment that would have exempted from the ban Americans who live near an international border.
The federal government has failed to secure the southern border and allowed a flow of dangerous people to come across from Mexico, he said.
“We should recognize the reality of a well-armed cartel infiltrating further into the border of the United States and impacting South Texas and that the ability of people to defend themselves would be stronger if they were exempted from this particular restriction,” Roy said.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, responded by touting her credentials as a native South Texan who learned growing up how to use firearms to protect her property and hunt to put food on the table — activities she said do not require an AR-15.
“Quite frankly my brothers would suggest that if you have to get an assault-type weapon to go hunting, you must be a really bad shot,” Garcia said.
She also objected to Roy’s amendment as potentially fostering racial profiling and said she’s not afraid of an invasion across the border.
“My brothers and sisters that still live in South Texas don’t talk about an invasion,” Garcia said. “They just wonder what the hell we’re doing up here that we haven’t banned assault weapons.”
Roy offered another amendment that would have exempted from the ban Americans living in jurisdictions that have cut law enforcement funding in the past couple of years.
That sparked a committee debate about which party has a better record of funding law enforcement.
Bill faces uphill battle
It’s unclear whether the bill can get through the full House, in part because of resistance from moderate Democrats.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has said he would vote against the bill if it comes to the floor and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, is undecided.
Even if the measure passes the House, it will be a nonstarter in the Senate.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on guns Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, touted his work on the bipartisan bill recently enacted into law.
That law includes funding for state-level crisis intervention programs, enhanced reviews of gun buyers under 21 and new penalties for gun trafficking.
But Cornyn said he’s not willing to infringe on the Second Amendment and that focusing on guns, which are inanimate objects, diverts attention from possible solutions.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, similarly stressed the need to focus on criminals and rejected the idea of more gun restrictions while delivering a blunt assessment of the measure Cornyn just helped shepherd into law.
“We just had a debate on gun control and the Democrats passed a bill, with some Republican support, that I think is likely to do nothing to prevent violent crime,” Cruz said. “It satisfied a political agenda but it is unlikely to stop the next mass murder.”
Despite the challenges of getting the ban into law, its backers are determined to press forward.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, spoke during Wednesday’s session about the damage caused by AR-15-style weapons and how children in Uvalde had to be identified with the use of DNA.
She said the Second Amendment is not absolute and that Congress has the power to regulate firearms.
“It is imperative that we pass an assault weapons ban,” Jackson Lee said. “I want to stand with the children.”