Published Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 7:50 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 10:17 a.m.
After months of silence, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid declared this morning that he would support efforts to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
“We must strike a better balance between the right to defend ourselves and the right of every child in America to grow up safe from gun violence,” Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor early today. “The efforts won’t stop every criminal bent on violence. But last year’s tragedy in Newtown was a wake-up call that we’re not doing enough to keep our citizens safe.
“If tragedy strikes again, if innocents are gunned down in a classroom, a theater or a restaurant, I would have trouble living with myself knowing I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent that incident.”
Reid called his choice to vote for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to ban assault rifles and Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Frank Lautenberg’s amendment to ban high-capacity magazines a choice “to vote my conscience,” after considering gun control in the context of everything from common sense to his Mormon faith.
“Decisions are constantly before us. To make them wisely, courage is needed...the courage today to say ‘yes,’” Reid said, partially quoting Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon church.
Reid said there is no legitimate reason to maintain that the Second Amendment gives civilians the right to own military-grade weapons, unless one is a “conspiracy theorist who believes in black helicopters and false flags.”
“The police have tear gas, battering rams...The military has rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, tanks, fighter jets...Should civilians have those also? Please, it does not make sense,” Reid said. “In a civil society, where we have to balance individual rights with public safety...there should be limits, significant limits, on what [civilians] are allowed to own.”
Reid has long prided himself on a strong relationship with the National Rifle Association and has always owned guns, which he uses for self-protection and sport. But he has long been privately puzzled, he said, as to why there are more restrictions on guns used to hunt birds than guns designed to kill people.
“I’d always had trouble understanding why people need assault weapons to hunt or protect their homes or to target shoot,” he said. “Assault weapons have one purpose and one purpose only: To kill a large number of people really quick.”
But when called on to vote for or against gun bans — most recently in 2004, when the last assault weapons ban expired — he voted no, reasoning that, as he said a friend once pointed out to him, “you can’t define an assault weapon...That seemed reasonable to me, so I voted against the ban.”
A month ago, Reid returned to the gun control topic with the same friend, who informed Reid he still opposed a gun ban but for different reasons.
“He said, ‘Do police have assault weapons...Does the military have assault weapons?’ I said yes. He said, ‘If they have them, I want them,’” Reid, a former Capitol Police officer, recalled.
“I believe that as Americans, we have a right to arm ourselves. But we don’t need the ability to arm ourselves against the Army or the police,” Reid said. “I’ll vote for the ban because saving the lives of police officers, young and old, and innocent civilians, young and old, is more important than preventing imagined tyranny.”
Even with Reid’s strong support, the chances of the Senate passing a ban on assault rifles or high-capacity magazines is slim.
In fact, when the Senate votes tonight on a series of up to nine amendments on gun control, it may have difficulty mustering the necessary votes to carry an expansion of background checks.
On Tuesday, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller added his name to the list of senators opposing a bipartisan compromise to require background checks for all public gun sales, including at gun shows. The legislation would exempt private, inter-family gun sales from the requirement.
Heller argued that the Manchin-Toomey compromise, named after the bipartisan pair who negotiated it last week, could not guarantee that information obtained from background checks would not be used to create a national gun registry.
Today, Reid ripped into Heller and others who have made a similar objection, calling their reasoning “absolutely false, untrue, and it’s unfair.”
“[Manchin-Toomey] not only bans a registry, but it creates a 15-year felony sentence for any government official found storing these gun records,” Reid said. “Claims that this legislation would create a gun registry is nothing more than shameful scare tactics.”
Reid also warned that 90 percent of American voters — the approximate portion of the country that recent polls have shown support stricter gun control — “have a long, long memory” and intimated they would hold senators voting against background checks accountable.
Heller has frequently said that he supports stronger background checks; he just doesn’t like any of the solutions to strengthen them that have been presented.
Four Republican senators have said they would vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment. Midday on Wednesday, however, Reid did not appear to have enough votes to pass the bill, as not even all 55 Democrats were planning on voting for the legislation.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said Wednesday she would not vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment, and it was unclear whether Lautenberg — who has been absent the last few weeks for health reasons — would be able to make it back to the Capitol to cast the 60th, filibuster-clearing vote.
Assuming all other Democrats voted for the legislation, Reid would still be three votes shy of the 60 votes needed to avoid the threat of a filibuster.
But neither Reid, Sen. Joe Manchin nor the White House were willing to concede defeat Wednesday, recommitting themselves to work all the way up to the 5 p.m. vote to convince senators to change their minds.
Should 60 senators fail to vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment, the entire gun control issue will likely have to be tabled until a more politically popular compromise can be struck.
Conservative Republicans today released an alternative gun bill that, instead of expanding background checks on gun purchases at gun shows, on the internet, and in other currently unregulated transactions, would attempt to improve enforcement of current gun control laws.