Friday, March 8, 2013

Reigniting the Gun Control Debate: Senator Feinstein's 2013 Assault Weapons Ban

On Thursday January 24, 2013, democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.  The ban was introduced shortly after the devastating Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newton Connecticut where twenty children and six adult staff members were murdered by an assailant who entered the school armed with two semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle.  Following several past mass shootings such as the Virginia Tech in 2007, and the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre massacre in 2012, the Sandy Hook tragedy reignited a national debate on gun control.  Feinstein, who herself became San Francisco’s mayor in 1978 after her predecessor was shot and killed, has a long history of fighting against gun violence.

Feinstein’s 2013 ban seeks to reinstate law from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expired in 2004.  Several key proposals in Feinstein’s 2013 ban include the following:

-       Banning the sale, transfer, importation, or manufacturing of 157 specifically named firearms and shotguns, as well as handguns with at least one military function;
-       strengthening the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and various state bans by moving from a two characteristic test to a one characteristic test in determining what constitute an assault rifle;
-       banning large-capacity ammunition feeding devices capable of accepting more than ten rounds; and
-       protecting the rights of legitimate hunters and existing gun owners by excluding 2,258 legitimate hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns by specific make and model.  It also excludes weapons that are lawfully possessed, manually operated, classified as antiques, and those used by law enforcement.
Feinstein’s ban has been criticized for its impracticability.  Critics claim that by addressing specific firearms, the ban more easily opens itself to opposition centered upon the Second Amendment.  The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The interpretation of the Second Amendment has been a common issue in our nations gun debate.  In the 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense.  Feinstein’s ban excludes banning legitimate hunting rifles and weapons that are lawfully possessed.  However, she seeks to ban a number of shotguns and handguns with at least one military function.
The implications of the term “keep and bear arms” in the Second Amendment, has also been well debated.  In Heller, the majority held that the right to keep and bear arms is not limited to the use of the military.  Conversely, in the dissent, Justice Stevens argued that implications of the Second Amendment’s terminology suggest that the framers intended for the phrase to refer only to individuals in service of a state-organized militia.  If this were not the case, Justice Stevens argues, the framers would have added an additional phrase such as "for the defense of themselves."
Feinstein’s 2013 ban seeks to narrow the determination of what qualifies as an assault rifle.  In the 1994 ban, an assault rifle was defined as a semi-automatic firearm that was capable of a detachable magazine and possessing two characteristics similar to a military-style firearm.  An example of a military-style characteristic is a grenade launcher, which allows grenades to be launched at extensive distances with defined accuracy. Other military-style characteristics include pistol grips, and barrel shrouds, which allow a gunman to more easily maneuver large assault weapons.  In the new 2013 ban, only one defining military-style characteristic is needed to classify a weapon as an assault rifle.  At a press conference, Feinstein stated that one of the criticisms of the 1994 ban was the ease at which manufacturers could move around the two characteristic test by eliminating one of the characteristics.  Thus, the current legislation seeks to make it more difficult for manufacturers to legalize certain firearms.
Feinstein’s ban comes along side proposals from the Obama administration to tighten gun laws.  On January 16, 2013 President Obama issued twenty-three executive orders to reduce gun violence.  Additionally, President Obama has vowed to sign Feinstein’s legislation if it withstands significant hurdles in Congress.
Both President Obama’s executive orders and Feinstein’s assault rifle ban have received widespread criticism.  Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota stated in an interview that no amount of gun regulation or executive orders would be successful in identifying individuals likely to commit mass shootings.  Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana refuses to support or oppose gun bans.  Instead his sentiment echoes widespread debate concerning gun control, which hinge towards exploring the effects of comprehensive factors such as video games and mental health on gun violence.
The events of Sandy Hook were undeniably tragic.  However, the momentum that surfaced immediately following the shooting has appeared to dwindle.  Lawmakers acknowledge that mass shootings are a problem but are indecisive on what action to take.  Many lawmakers express strong support in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Additionally, we live in a nation where rifles are commonly used for hunting, collection, and sport. The White house has even released a recent photo of President Obama shooting skeet at Camp David.  A comprehensive approach is needed for the complexities that encompass gun violence.  There are various types of gun violence, which are not limited to mass shootings, domestic violence, suicide, and daily violence in major cities.  The fact that various policies will have an alternate impact on each one of these issues may account for some of the caution policymakers express when grappling with gun control legislation.

Raziya Brumfield,
Criminal Law Brief, Blogger

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