Dems push assault weapons ban through Senate panel

Photo -   FILE - This March 3, 2013, file photo shows handguns displayed in Sandy, Utah. Democrats pushed an assault weapons ban through a Senate committee on Thursday, March 14, 2013, and toward its likely doom on the Senate floor, after an emotion-laden debate that underscored the deep feelings the issue stokes on both sides (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
FILE – This March 3, 2013, file photo shows handguns displayed in Sandy, Utah. Democrats pushed an assault weapons ban through a Senate committee on Thursday, March 14, 2013, and toward its likely doom on the Senate floor, after an emotion-laden debate that underscored the deep feelings the issue stokes on both sides (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats pushed an assault weapons ban through a Senate committee on Thursday and toward its likely doom on the Senate floor, after an emotion-laden debate that underscored the deep feelings the issue stokes on both sides.

Exactly three months after 26 children and educators were gunned down in Newtown, Conn., the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure on a party-line 10-8 vote. The bill would also bar ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds.

Thursday’s vote marked the fourth gun control measure the committee has approved in a week and shifted the spotlight to the full Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will decide soon how to bring the measures to the chamber, where debate is expected next month.

“Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. He said that despite gun-rights advocates’ claims, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is not at risk, but “lives are at risk” unless lawmakers can figure out how to keep firearms away from dangerous people.

The other bills would require federal background checks to more would-be gun buyers, make it easier for authorities to prosecute illegal gun traffickers and boost school safety aid.

In a written statement, President Barack Obama thanked senators “for taking another step forward in our common effort to help reduce gun violence” and said Congress should vote on all the proposals. He said assault weapons “are designed for the battlefield, and they have no place on our streets, in our schools, or threatening our law enforcement officers.”

Barring assault weapons was part of Obama’s plan for reducing gun violence. But banning the high-powered weapons has encountered strong opposition from congressional Republicans and elicited little enthusiasm among moderate Democratic senators up for re-election next year in GOP-leaning states in the West and South.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and her supporters say the ban would help eliminate the type of firearms and magazines that have been used with deadly effect at Newtown and several other recent mass shootings. Opponents say barring the guns would violate the right to bear arms and have little overall impact because assault weapons are involved in small percentages of gun crimes.

At one point Thursday, Feinstein responded angrily after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked if she would also support limiting the First Amendment’s freedom of speech by denying its protection to some books.

“I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years” and studied the issue for a long time, she told Cruz. She later added: “It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here a long time.”

Cruz, an outspoken conservative freshman, answered, “Nobody doubts her sincerity and her passion and yet at the same time, I’d note she chose not to answer the question.”

“The answer is obvious — no,” Feinstein said later.

She and other Democrats also argued that there are limits on many constitutional rights. Leahy said the state Board of Education in Cruz’s home state “has told people what books they should or shouldn’t read” — a reference to that conservative-led board that controls the state’s school curriculum standards.

Cruz said lawmakers should make decisions about gun legislation using “facts and data and by the Constitution, not by passion.”

Before the ban was approved, Democrats defeated Republican amendments seeking to exempt groups including sexual abuse victims and people who live near the Southwest border.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Feinstein’s measure wouldn’t stop criminals from obtaining assault weapons and complained, “We’re going to give the American citizens a pea-shooter to defend themselves with.”

Feinstein said there was no evidence that people can’t defend themselves just as well with a handgun.

At one point, Leahy, an avid gun owner, said some of the debate reminded him of movies depicting “zombie takeovers,” adding, “I’ve always been perfectly satisfied with my .45 that I have at home.”

Feinstein’s bill would ban semi-automatic weapons — guns that fire one round and automatically reload — that can take a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature like a pistol grip.

It specifically bans 157 named weapons. In an effort to avoid antagonizing those who use them for sports, the measure allows 2,258 rifles and shotguns that are frequently used by hunters.

It also exempts any weapons that are lawfully owned whenever the bill is enacted.

Many expect the assault weapons ban won’t be included in the basic bill the Senate debates next month, but will be offered as an amendment. That would mean it would likely need 60 votes to prevail in the 100-member chamber — a difficult margin for Feinstein since there are only 53 Democratic senators plus two independents who usually side with them.

“The vote is uphill. I truly understand it,” she said.

Separating the ban from more popular measures would also make it easier for red-state Democrats to vote against the ban but still leave them available to back the rest of the legislation. Several senators said they thought the ban on high-capacity magazines could pass.

The House’s Republican leaders have said they’ll wait for the Senate to act before moving on legislation. They’ve not expressed support for an assault weapons ban.

They have discussed improving how states report data on people with serious mental health and drug abuse problems to the federal background check system. Both parties see that as a major flaw that needs to be fixed.

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Barack Obama ‘has authority to use drone strikes to kill Americans on US soil’

President Barack Obama has the authority to use an unmanned drone strike to kill US citizens on American soil, his attorney general has said.

Barack Obama 'has authority to use drone strikes to kill Americans on US soil'

Eric Holder, left, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Code Pink demonstrator Medea Benjamin protests against the use of drone strikes Photo: Getty Images
 

Eric Holder argued that using lethal military force against an American in his home country would be legal and justified in an “extraordinary circumstance” comparable to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“The president could conceivably have no choice but to authorise the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland,” Mr Holder said.

His statement was described as “more than frightening” by Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, who had demanded to know the Obama administration’s position on the subject.

“It is an affront the constitutional due process rights of all Americans,” said Mr Paul, a 50-year-old favourite of the anti-government Tea Party movement, who is expected to run for president in 2016.

Mr Holder wrote to Mr Paul after the senator threatened to block the appointment of John Brennan as the director of the CIA unless he received answers to a series of questions on its activities.

Mr Obama has been sharply criticised for the secrecy surrounding his extension of America’s “targeted killing” campaign against al-Qaeda terrorist suspects using missile strikes by unmanned drones.

The secret campaign has killed an estimated 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A quarter are estimated to have been civilians prompting anger among human rights campaigners.

According to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes killed between 474 and 881 civilians – including 176 children – in Pakistan between 2004 and last year.

Criticism within the US has focused on the implications for terror suspects who are also US citizens, after Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric born and educated in the US, was killed in Yemen in 2011.

The administration claims it has the legal authority to assassinate Americans provided that they are a senior al-Qaeda operative posing an imminent threat and it would be “infeasible” to capture them.

This justification emerged only last month in a leaked memo from Mr Holder’s department of justice. Mr Obama this week agreed to give Congress his full set of classified legal memos on the targeting of Americans.

Civil liberties campaigners accuse the president and his aides of awarding themselves sweeping powers to deny Americans their constitutional rights without oversight from Congress or the judiciary.

Mr Holder stressed in his letter that the prospect of a president considering the assassination of an American citizen on US soil was “entirely hypothetical” and “unlikely to occur”.

Yet “it is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorise the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States,” he wrote.

Appearing in front the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday, Mr Holder reiterated that “the government has no intention to carry out any drone strikes in the United States”.

Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, told him his reference to “extraordinary circumstances” such as September 11 or the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour were “extremely concerning”.

“It is imperative that we understand the operational boundaries for use of such force,” Mr Grassley said. “American citizens have a right to understand when their life can be taken by their government absent due process.”

Daphne Eviatar, a senior counsel at Human Rights First, said: “It’s hard to see how authorities could not be in a position to arrest someone yet be able to kill them.

“The administration should publish all its legal memos on targeted killing. Classified information can be redacted if necessary. There is no reason for legal opinions justifying ongoing US programmes to be kept secret.”

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