Federal ban on military-style rifles an uphill battle for Murphy, Blumenthal

Gun Rights

HARTFORD — Nearly two decades after the federal ban on military-style weapons was allowed to expire in 2004, Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal are making a long-shot bid to revive the ban following a particularly deadly start to the new year.

The duo filed legislation this week to reinstate the ban on more than 200 types of semi-automatic weapons that bear hallmarks of what critics call “assault” rifles — namely detachable magazines, pistol grips, barrel shrouds, folding stocks and other elements often utilized by the military in combat. 

Another sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dianne Fienstein, D-California, represents communities of Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay and Oakland, where collectively 19 people were killed in a spate of mass shootings this week.

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The gunman in at least one of those incidents, in Monterey Park, allegedly used a modified variant of a MAC-10 pistol, one of the weapons expressly named in the senator’s legislation, according to the New York Times.

“These weapons are designed to do one thing: kill human beings as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” Murphy told reporters in Hartford on Friday. “It is no coincidence that the assault weapon continues to be the choice of mass murderers.”

Both senators acknowledged the uphill battle their legislation faces in Congress, which passed a much more limited gun-control measure in June, following more than three decades of inaction on federal gun laws. 

Murphy, who helped lead that earlier effort, said that its passage showed that “Congress is responsive to the demands of the American people.” Still, Murphy said he and Blumenthal are also putting forward a bill to raise the minimum age to purchase long guns to 21, as a potential backup option. 

Critics dismissed the senator’s approach as being out of step with the consensus in Washington, where most Republicans remain staunchly opposed to adding any new restrictions on gun ownership. 

“Quite frankly, I don’t think the rest of America has an appetite for what they’re proposing.” said Holly Sullivan, the president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, Inc.

In order to get either of their bills out of the Senate, Murphy and Blumenthal would have to get the support of nine of their Republican colleagues, or have Democrats agree to remove the filibuster to pass legislation on a party-line vote. If they manage to get that far, the Senators will then have to convince the Republican-controlled House to act — likely an even taller order in the age of partisan gridlock. 

The idea does have the support of President Joe Biden, who said the in the wake of the most recent shootings that a restored ban is “badly needed.”

As recently as November, however, Murphy said that the Senate lacked the 60 votes necessary to pass a new ban on military-style rifles without getting rid of the filibuster.

One of the key Republican negotiators on last year’s successful gun legislation, Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas, recently said that he did not expect to see Congress pass any additional legislation following the most recent mass shootings, telling NBC News, “We did everything we could do with the votes available last summer.” 

One reason for optimism among gun-control advocates, however, has been the decline of firearm-industry groups such as the National Rifle Association, which faces falling membership and revenues

“They are no longer the unflappable, impenetrable force that they once were,” Blumenthal said Friday. 

Passed in 1994, the original Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly known as the “assault weapons ban,” included a provision allowing the law to automatically expire after 10 years, which it did in September, 2004. 

Reflecting on the ban Friday, Murphy said it was a “mistake” for the sponsors to include the sunset clause, and that his and Blumenthal’s proposed reinstatement does not include such a provision. Asked whether he would accept another sunset clause as part of an agreement to gain support for the bill, however, Murphy declined to say what he might be willing to negotiate publicly. 

While the impacts of the 1994 federal law continue to be debated decades after its expiration, Murphy and Blumenthal both noted that states like Connecticut which continue to prohibit military-style rifles have some of the lowest rates of gun violence in the nation.

On Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that he would ask state lawmakers this year to expand Connecticut’s ban on military-style weapons yet again, removing an exception that has allowed firearms manufacturers prior to 1993 to be kept and sold without registration.

Even with stricter laws, Lamont and other officials have long complained that the lack of a federal ban has allowed illegal weapons to flow into Connecticut along the “iron pipeline” from state’s in the South and Midwest, which typically have much weaker restrictions on firearms.

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