Congressional Democrats unveiled legislation Thursday to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like those used in the school massacre at Newtown, Conn., even as they acknowledged an uphill battle getting the measures through a divided Congress.
The group led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on the public to get behind their effort, saying that is the only way they will prevail over opposition from the well-organized National Rifle Association and its congressional allies.
"This is really an uphill road. If anyone asked today, 'Can you win this?' the answer is, 'We don't know, it's so uphill,'" Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference backed by police chiefs, mayors and crime victims. "There is one great hope out there. And that is you, because you are stronger than the gun lobby. You are stronger than the gun manufacturers. But only if you stand up."
Feinstein's legislation comes a week after President Barack Obama unveiled a package of gun control measures including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and it marks the start of tense congressional debate with no certain conclusion.
In addition to NRA opposition, Feinstein and her supporters must contend with the Republican-controlled House, where leaders have shown scant interest in gun measures. Perhaps even more daunting, fellow Democrats from rural states where voters strongly support gun rights have deep concerns about her measure.
Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has expressed skepticism the assault weapons ban could get through Congress. Some advocacy groups are focusing their attention instead on expanding background checks, which is seen as more doable politically.
Feinstein's legislation is written comprehensively to cover rifles, pistols and handguns with one of any military-style features like detachable stock, pistol grips or grenade launchers. It also bans 157 specific firearms, while excluding 2,258 hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns. And it bans magazines that accept more than 10 rounds.
Feinstein aimed to improve upon the previous assault weapons ban she authored, which expired in 2004 when Congress failed to renew it under NRA pressure. Original passage of that bill in 1994 was blamed for costing Democrats control of the House and Senate after they supported it. There's also considerable debate about its effectiveness during the years it was in effect, in part because of loopholes that allowed gun manufacturers to work around it. Feinstein's new version is more comprehensive in defining what kinds of weapons are banned.
The NRA responded that the new bill would infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms and that instead the focus should be on prosecuting criminals and improving the country's mental health system. "The American people know gun bans do not work, and we are confident Congress will reject Sen. Feinstein's wrong-headed approach," the NRA said in a statement.
Feinstein said those Democrats with concerns about the legislation needed to ask themselves what their silence would mean.
"Sandy Hook is more eloquent testimony than any of us could possibly give," she said. "If members of this body are so insensitive to what happened to those small bodies from that Bushmaster when it all becomes known, America is hopeless."
Even some of Feinstein's supporters believe the assault weapons ban is so unattainable politically that the focus should be on other measures that might even be more effective policy.
Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that he's more concerned about limiting the number of rounds in a gun magazine than about banning assault weapons that account for a small percentage of gun deaths.
Biden argued that the shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., could have been slowed down if he had fewer rounds in each magazine and had to change clips more often. "Maybe if it took longer, maybe one more kid would be alive," Biden said during an online video chat on Google Plus.
The vice president led a White House gun control task force in the wake of the Newtown shooting last month.
Biden is launching the White House's promotional tour on gun control Friday with a trip to Virginia, a state that has experienced its own school shooting tragedy yet maintains an avidly pro-gun tradition. His office said Biden will hold a round-table discussion in Richmond with experts who worked on gun safety following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.