New bill to make assault weapons less lethal shows waning influence of gun lobby over public opinion

Gun Rights

Yet another mass shooting occurred on Oct. 25, this time in Lewiston, Maine, that killed 18 people and wounded 13 others. As of Oct. 26, that makes an astounding 35,275 people that have been killed by gun violence in this country just in 2023. 

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. noted that King and Heinrich both have opposed broad assault weapons bans in the past. He said that “a fair share of Democrats representing rural areas are reluctant to join their big-city colleagues in support of laws too often cast as expressions of disrespect for traditions of gun ownership.” 

Dionne wrote that it’s important “to recognize forward movement” in the debate over gun safety regulations and “to celebrate politicians who seek new and creative paths to consensus.”

In a press release introducing the legislation, King said:

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“For years, I have said that rather than using the appearance of these guns to restrict them, we should instead focus on how these weapons actually work and the features that make them especially dangerous.”

He added that the GOSAFE Act “addresses the lethal capacity weapons like the one used in Lewiston and most of the deadliest mass shootings across the country. Nothing can bring back the lives of our family and friends, but responsible actions moving forward can reduce the likelihood of such a nightmare happening again in Maine or anywhere else.”

Heinrich said:

 “Like many New Mexicans, I am a gun owner. I firmly believe we must uphold the laws that protect safe and responsible gun ownership. This bill achieves that, while taking steps to get those firearms that are inherently dangerous and unusually lethal, designed for maximum harm, out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves or others. By giving law enforcement the tools and time needed to keep our communities safe, this pragmatic legislation will save lives.”

Some of the key provisions of the proposed legislation are to limit the number of rounds that large-capacity ammunition feeding devices are permitted to carry to 10 rounds of ammunition or fewer. Additionally, the GOSAFE Act makes conversion devices—including bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at a faster rate—unlawful. Magazines must be “permanently fixed,” meaning the firearm cannot accept a detachable, high-capacity magazine that would increase the number of rounds that can be fired before reloading and make reloading easier.

Additionally, guns that don’t meet the regulations could no longer be sold, resold, or manufactured. People who already own such guns could keep them or pass them on to family members. The bill would also establish a federal gun buyback program so that people could turn in guns that don’t meet the regulations, and get money back for doing so.

Dionne noted that the the proposed legislation would effectively “make it impossible to convert lawful firearms into what effectively become fully automatic weapons like machine guns, which have been subject to stringent limitations since 1934.”

Two other moderate Democrats co-sponsored the legislation—Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mark Kelly of Arizona, whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was severely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 and now heads a gun violence prevention group. 

So far there are no Republican co-sponsors. Maine Sen. Susan Collins is reviewing King’s bill but had not yet taken a position, her spokeswoman Annie Clark told the Portland Press Herald. In the past, Collins has said she supports gun-safety measures such as banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.

King and Heinrich began working on their proposed legislation back in 2019, and then began working on the details of the bill in 2021 in order for the bill to hold up in court and make sure it didn’t contain loopholes for gun companies. King told the Portland Press Herald: “Lewiston simply strengthened my resolve. It redoubled my commitment to dealing with this issue.”

Another member of Maine’s congressional delegation went even further than King after the Lewiston horror. Rep. Jared Golden, one of the more conservative House Democrats, reversed his opposition to an assault weapons ban, declaring that “the time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure.” Maine’s other House member, Rep. Chellie Pingree, has always supported an assault weapons ban.
King and Heinrich are trying to follow up on last year’s passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act with its modest reforms such as enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, barring more domestic violence offenders from purchasing firearms, and funding for “red flag” laws that enable authorities to confiscate guns from troubled individuals. It was the first gun-safety measure enacted in nearly 30 years.

Even though the King-Heinrich bill falls far short of an assault weapons ban, it has garnered support from the Biden administration and gun safety advocacy groups. Stefanie Feldman, director of the newly created White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, said: “We support any effort to keep assault weapons and high-capacity magazines out of dangerous hands, as this bill would do. President Biden led the passage of the assault weapons ban through Congress in 1994 (when he was a senator from Delaware), which worked to significantly reduce mass shootings. And since Senate Republicans allowed it to expire in 2005, he has tirelessly fought to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines once and for all.”

Fred Guttenberg, a gun reform activist whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, died in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, told the Portland Press Herald that the GOSAFE Act would help reduce gun violence. “I don’t look at things as ‘first steps’ or ‘best steps.’ I look at it that if passed will it help reduce instances of gun violence and the gun violence death rate? From that standpoint, (the bill) does.” 

Dr. Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, explained:

“As we navigate the complexities of gun legislation, it’s crucial to strike a balance between the cultural significance of firearms and the undeniable need for effective gun safety measures. The proposal by Senators King and Heinrich represents a thoughtful approach to this challenge, focusing on the functionality of firearms rather than their aesthetics. This could be a pivotal moment in shifting the discourse towards more pragmatic solutions in gun control.”

But obviously the GOSAFE Act faces long odds of passing in the Republican-controlled House and the Senate with its filibuster rule. The 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority has become increasingly hostile to gun safety legislation. Last month, the high court decided to take up a case brought by a right-wing legal group challenging the constitutionality of the bump stock ban introduced by the Trump administration after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017.

The National Rifle Association wasted no time in declaring its strong opposition to the proposed legislation.

This legislation blatantly violates the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court rulings by banning the very types of firearms and magazines most often utilized by Americans for defending themselves and their families,” Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “This bill unjustly and improperly places the full burden of the law on law-abiding residents, while doing nothing to take guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals.”

But as Dionne observed in his column: “The gun lobby’s power is slipping, and pollsters have found that parents’ worries about the safety of their children in school are increasingly driving the gun debate.”

King and Heinrich say they are working on lobbying fellow senators, including Republicans, to support the bill despite the long odds. King told the Portland Press Herald that he believes that “politics will eventually catch up with public opinion” and meaningful gun reform will pass. “You can work on something for years, and it doesn’t happen and doesn’t happen, and then suddenly the stars align and the bill passes,” King said.

RELATED STORY: The Supreme Court will decide if domestic abuse orders can bar people from having guns

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