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Some Senators Show Willingness To Take On Gun Laws

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has an "A" rating from the NRA, but questions why anyone would need the kind of semi-automatic assault rifle used in the Newtown, Conn., killings.
Dave Martin

As President Obama spoke to mourning families in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday night, he clearly seemed to suggest a need for tougher gun laws.

"Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?" he said.

For Congress, the politics have been too hard.

The combination of a powerful gun owners' lobby in the form of the National Rifle Association and a loss of public support for gun control has stymied efforts in recent years to tighten gun laws.

But there are signs the Newtown massacre may prompt change on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, the first session of the Senate since the shootings opened with a pointed prayer from Senate Chaplain Barry Black: "Make our lawmakers willing to act promptly, remembering that time is fleeting."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid then called for a moment of silence. Reid has not been a proponent of tougher gun laws — he has a "B" rating from the NRA, though he got no endorsement from that group in his last election.

On Monday, though, the Nevada Democrat signaled a willingness to explore how to prevent more gun slaughter. "We need to accept the reality that we're not doing enough to protect our citizens," he said. "In the coming days and weeks, we'll engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, announced Sunday on NBC that on the first day the new Congress meets next month, she'll introduce a bill similar to the now-expired assault weapons ban she sponsored 18 years ago.

"It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession — not retroactively, but prospectively," she said. "And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, announced Monday that he will hold a hearing next month on preventing more shooting sprees. "If there are practical and sensible and workable answers to prevent such unspeakable tragedy, we should make the effort to find them," he said. "Then, Mr. President, we should have the courage — each and every one of us — to vote for those steps."

Some conservatives are joining the calls for reviewing gun laws, including Mark DeMoss, who has close ties to evangelical groups and was an adviser to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

"We can't keep having occurrences like these, and mourn and have memorial services for a week or two, and then go on until the next one," he said.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, one of 31 senators with an "A" rating from the NRA, said Monday that the shooting "really has changed us. It's changed me."

Manchin questions why anyone would need the kind of Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle used in the Newtown killings.

"I don't know of anybody that goes hunting with an assault rifle. I don't know anybody that needs those types of multiple clips as far as ammunition in a gun," he said on MSNBC. "The most that I've ever used in my hunting rifle is three shells. Usually you get one shot and very seldom ever two. ... This doesn't make a lot of sense, and this has to be brought to this level now, and it's a shame."

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told WTVR-TV in Richmond on Monday: "I had an NRA rating of an 'A.' But, you know, enough is enough. ... I'm the father of three daughters, and this weekend they all said, 'Dad ... how can this go on?' And I, like I think most of us, realize that there are ways to get to rational gun control."

And yet for all the signs of a renewed debate in the Democratic-controlled Senate over gun laws, the Republicans who run the House have remained largely silent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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