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Sponsors Of Assault Weapons Ban Hope Newtown Shooting Changes Minds

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference Thursday announcing her plan to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Alex Wong
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference Thursday announcing her plan to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Congressional Democrats appeared on Capitol Hill Thursday to push for a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The bill's author, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, started her remarks with a roster of tragedy: "Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Tucson. Oak Creek. The common thread in these shootings is each gunman used a semiautomatic assault weapon or large-capacity ammunition magazine."

Her new proposal tries to do something about both. First, the bill would ban the sale or import of about 150 types of "military style" assault weapons, including the ones shooters used in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. Second, the bill would prohibit ammunition-feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds.

And unlike a 1994 ban that expired after a decade, this proposal would have no sunset.

The proposal also includes a carve-out for 2,200 kinds of rifles used by hunters and sportsmen.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, tried to play down fears those weapons would be confiscated. "None of us want to take away the hunting rifle that Uncle Tommy gave you when you were 14 years old," Schumer said. "We don't want to do that. Nor do we want to take away a sidearm that a small-business owner feels he or she needs in a dangerous neighborhood."

Two Democratic senators from Connecticut, where 20 first-graders were killed last month, took a more personal approach.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal struggled to maintain his composure when he talked about what he saw at the Sandy Hook firehouse that day.

"I came there as a public official, but what I saw was through the eyes of a parent," Blumenthal said. "And I will never forget the sights and sounds of that day as parents emerged from that firehouse learning that their 5- and 6-year-old children would not be coming home."

Sen. Chris Murphy said people in Newtown are struggling. Murphy said kids in the area now have special words — called safe words — to use when they get into conversations about the shooting and they want to stop talking about it. A few times a day, Murphy said, third-graders are known to holler out the safe word "monkey" when they run into uncomfortable situations.

"It's not just the families who grieve; it's the trauma that just washes over these communities like waves in the weeks and months afterwards," Murphy said.

It's going to take a while, just like the investigation into what motivated the shooter, Adam Lanza.

In Connecticut this week, Lt. Paul Vance told NPR that state police are preparing a huge report — hundreds of pages — on what happened and why. That report won't be released before June, and it could include redactions to cover birth dates and medical histories, for privacy reasons.

There are still plenty of investigative steps under way. For instance, the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., is still trying to rebuild and recover information from a hard drive Lanza smashed. And the medical examiner is doing some more work, perhaps toxicology tests and studies of Lanza's last meal, to see if they offer clues about his whereabouts in the day before the attack.

Lanza's mother, Nancy, who was shot in her bed the morning of Dec. 14, legally owned all the weapons her son used, including the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle he used to shoot all of the victims in the Sandy Hook school. But it's not clear Nancy Lanza took lots of precautions to keep the weapons away from her son, who had been known to shoot them at local firing ranges, two sources told NPR. Nancy Lanza had no ties to the elementary school, despite early reporting to the contrary, state police say.

Back in Washington, supporters of new gun controls say lives could have been saved in Newtown if Adam Lanza had not had magazines that held 20 or 30 rounds.

Vice President Biden addressed that issue Thursday in a Google chat.

"I'm much less concerned, quite frankly, about what you call an assault weapon than I am about magazines and the number of rounds that can be held in a magazine," Biden said.

Banning magazines that carry lots of rounds can force shooters to reload more often and give law enforcement time to disrupt an attack, Biden added.

But the National Rifle Association signaled it would give no ground on new gun laws. In a statement on its website, the NRA said Congress should spend less time "curtailing the Constitution" and more time "prosecuting criminals or fixing our broken mental health system."

"The American people know gun bans don't work and we are confident Congress will reject Senator Feinstein's wrong-headed approach," the NRA statement said.

For her part, Feinstein, the bill's main sponsor, told reporters she is not sure what will happen next. "This is really an uphill road. If anyone asks today, 'Can you win this?' The answer is we don't know. It's so uphill," she said.

Feinstein said the American people need to speak up and lean on Congress.

That's why gun control advocates told NPR they're planning to bring families from Newtown to Washington next month to lobby on the same day as President Obama's State of the Union address.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.