Skip to main content

What was behind Reid's sidestep on assault weapons ban?

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulls assault weapons ban from Dem gun control package
  • Many supporters of ban decriy move; opponents see confirmation of a proposal doomed to fail
  • Reid, supported in past by NRA, may be thinking politically of broader bill's possible passage
  • Upcoming votes on gun control package will show where lawmakers stand on the issue

Washington (CNN) -- Depending on whom you ask, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's decision to scuttle a controversial assault weapons ban proposal from a broader Democrat-backed gun control package is either shrewd strategy or political cowardice.

There's a little bit of truth in both perspectives, gun policy advocates say.

"It's not surprising what Sen. Reid did," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The Nevada lawmaker decided not to include the proposed assault weapons ban in gun legislation going to the full Senate for consideration because including it would guarantee the measure would be blocked by a Republican filibuster.

"I think there's justification for such a ban but politically it hits right in the area where we have the biggest divide," Webster said.

Feinstein: I'm not going to play dead
Senate shelves assault weapons ban
Sen. Feinstein: 'I'm not a sixth-grader'
Newtown reacts to no assault weapons ban

Senate leader says new weapons ban won't pass

The ban on semi-automatic firearms modeled after military assault weapons is proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and fiercely opposed by the National Rifle Association, Republicans and some Democrats. The ban would get fewer than 40 votes, Reid said, far below the threshold needed to defeat a filibuster or pass the Senate. The proposal to update a similar 1994 ban that expired a decade later was one of four measures passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to the Connecticut school massacre in December.

Instead, Feinstein could propose the ban as an amendment to gun legislation on the Senate floor in order to get a vote on it, Reid said.

The other proposals that are part of the gun control package would expand background checks, toughen laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases and design steps to improve school safety.

Lawmakers seem prepared to tackle gun control: 'This one feels different'

But it's the assault weapons ban that draws some of the most intense emotion in the wake of last year's deadly mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Congressional hearings have been filled with tearful testimony, poignant photographs and fiery rhetoric.

They are the type of raw displays likely to spook lawmakers wary of losing votes and tank gun control reform efforts, political experts say.

"In thinking about what is politically doable, for people who are more in the middle it's hardest to do anything that could characterize a politician as casting an anti-gun vote," Webster said.

Will states go where Congress hasn't on gun laws?

The proposed assault weapons ban enjoys high profile support from the White House, families of victims of some of the nation's most deadly shootings and celebrities like filmmaker and progressive activist Michael Moore. Gun rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association, the nation's most powerful gun lobby, have stridently criticized the proposal. NRA President David Keene characterized the measure as a "feel-good proposal" doomed to fail.

Moore, whose documentary "Bowling for Columbine," explored the nation's gun violence epidemic, had similarly blunt words about Reid, calling him a "weenie" during an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan on Tuesday and suggested viewers send the senator critical e-mails.

"If a man with an assault weapon goes into the school where Harry Reid's grandchildren go to school tomorrow and kills his grandchildren, would he stand in front of that microphone at 5 o'clock and say, 'I know how Dianne (Feinstein), you know, had to witness the mayor getting murdered and my grandchildren just got killed today, but you know, we can't get it passed because we just don't have the votes,' " Moore said during the interview.

Reid has found himself in a delicate position as he tries to navigate the desires of many members of his pro-gun rights Nevada constituency and the White House and members of his caucus' intensified push on gun control. As Senate majority leader, Reid has great influence to speed or slow the consideration of legislation on Capitol Hill.

Reid introduces gun violence bill

The nation's top Democrat in Congress has faced scrutiny in recent months for his close ties with the NRA.

Reid twice opposed the assault weapons ban, in 1992 and 2004, has a B rating by the NRA for his pro-gun rights voting record and since 2008 has received just shy of $8,450 from several gun lobbies, according to an analysis of campaign contributions from the Center for Responsive Politics. The NRA has also previously supported Reid in his primary races.

Reid slipped a provision into the 2010 national health care law that restricts the government from collecting data on gun ownership, as reported by CNN's National Political Correspondent Jim Acosta.

"He's under incredible pressure right now because he's got, as any member of Congress or senator does, he's got his own beliefs. He's got the views and the demands of his constituents on the one hand and the pressure he faces from party leaders and his president on the other," Keene told journalists at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast in January. "So where Harry Reid ends up in this debate is anybody's guess and I think that's one of the guessing games that's going on around Washington now."

Call to arms for a 'common sense' gun law

Voters on both sides of the issue are now getting a much clearer picture of where Reid stands and will soon have a better sense of how their own lawmakers measure up, said Richard Feldman, who served as regional political director for the NRA during its rise to power in the 1980s and is president of a gun rights group, the Independent Firearm Owners Association.

Allowing Feinstein's assault weapons ban to stand on its own as a separate amendment "is going to work out to his benefit," Feldman said of Reid's choice. "Having that straight up or down vote will be the most useful vote that gun rights activists and the other side will have to show this is someone who supports you and someone who opposes you."

Obama remains committed to assault weapons ban, White House says

Feldman also suggests keeping an eye on which lawmakers offer amendments to strip out portions of the broader gun control bill and the roll call votes on those amendments as well.

In the meantime, some gun control advocates are urging cooler heads as the nation awaits votes on the highly anticipated package of gun-related bills.

"Everybody needs to take a deep breath," said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence adding that he feels Reid rightly calculated how to get the broader gun control measure the best chance at success.

"I'd rather not fall on my sword," Everitt said. "I'd rather have a smart package so we can get it to the floor."

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones, the president and acting CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, discuss the lethal mix of domestic violence and guns.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
Gun rights and gun control advocates largely agree there should be restrictions on mentally ill people obtaining firearms. The case of Myron Fletcher illustrates how difficult it is to put that into practice.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law Wednesday that has critics howling and proponents applauding.
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 1052 GMT (1852 HKT)
Six months after a gunman burst into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and slaughtered 20 children and killed six others, promises of stricter national gun control laws remain largely unfulfilled.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Next time there's a mass shooting, don't jump to blame the National Rifle Association and lax gun laws. Look first at the shooter and the mental health services he did or didn't get, and the commitment laws in the state where the shooting took place.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
The sign at the door of the Colt factory displays a gun with a slash through it: "No loaded or unauthorized firearms beyond this point." Understandable for workers at a plant, but also a bit ironic, considering one of the largest arsenals in America lies just beyond.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1118 GMT (1918 HKT)
Much attention has been paid to the defeat in Congress of proposals to ban assault weapons and expand background checks for firearm purchases.
June 29, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Morgan Spurlock's "Inside Man" gives CNN viewers an inside and in-depth look at the issue of firearms -- as viewed from behind the counter of a gun store. Here are five things to know about the debate.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
The Supreme Court continued its recent hands-off approach on gun control, refusing to accept a challenge to New Jersey's restrictions on carrying weapons in public.
April 18, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
The Senate defeated a compromise plan to expand background checks on firearms sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.
April 12, 2013 -- Updated 0003 GMT (0803 HKT)
As Congress grapples with major gun control legislation proposals, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and children write about the people they loved and lost to gun violence and how it changed their lives.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
Hear from both sides of the gun debate as opinions clash.
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Many Americans and lawmakers are in favor of continuing or expanding background checks on gun purchases, but few understand how the checks work.
April 4, 2013 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Still stinging from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, Connecticut lawmakers approved what advocacy groups call the strongest and most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation.
March 29, 2013 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
It took fewer than five minutes for Adam Lanza to squeeze off 154 rounds, upending life in Newtown, Connecticut, and triggering a renewed national debate over gun control.
Who should get them? Join the gun control debate and share your perspective on CNN iReport.
April 2, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
Before having children, she was a firm believer that guns were dangerous. Now this mother of three has a different perspective.
March 19, 2013 -- Updated 2254 GMT (0654 HKT)
In the biggest fight over firearms since December's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, gun-control advocates are poised to notch a victory in an unlikely place.
A former drug addict turned anti-violence crusader, and a man who lost his father in a temple shooting. These are just two of many in the conversation.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
At a town hall that brought all sides of the gun debate together, was there a consensus? Sort of.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
The federal background check system for gun buyers didn't stop a mentally ill man from buying a gun, which he used to kill his mother.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 0037 GMT (0837 HKT)
In disputes over the future of gun laws, people espousing different positions often literally don't understand each other.
ADVERTISEMENT