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Senate panel backs Obama bid to renew assault weapons ban

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Organizing for Action dinner in Washington, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Organizing for Action dinner in Washington, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's bid to renew a ban against military-style assault weapons narrowly won the backing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and headed to the full Senate, where it appears certain to fail.

On a party line vote of 10-8, the Democratic-led panel approved a bill to renew a ban similar to one that expired in 2004. The measure would also limit high-capacity ammunition clips to 10 bullets.

Military-style assault weapons have been the weapon of choice in a number of recent U.S. mass shootings, including one at a elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults on December 14.

Polls show a majority of Americans back the ban.

But most Senate Republicans and a number of Democrats from rural states oppose it, arguing it would violate the constitutional right to bear arms. Many fear that backing the legislation could cost them re-election.

Obama's call to renew the ban is a centerpiece of his effort to curb gun violence in the wake of Newtown.

The president thanked the committee for approving the bill, saying in a statement that the weapons "are designed for the battlefield and have no place on our streets, in our schools or threatening our law enforcement officers."

Assistant Senate Minority Leader John Cornyn of Texas, one of eight committee Republicans, opposed the bill, saying: "This is a flawed piece of legislation that jeopardizes the self-defense and constitutional rights of law-abiding Texans, while doing nothing to address the tragic problem of gun violence."

The bill, offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, would ban the sale, import and manufacture of 157 specific types of military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons. It would exempt 2,258 types of rifles and shotguns that are considered "legitimate hunting and sporting" firearms. The prohibition would take effect immediately if the bill becomes law.

Feinstein said the exemption should provide the American people with more than enough weapons to defend themselves.

"Do they need a bazooka?" she asked at the hearing. "I don't think so."

INTENSE LOBBYING AHEAD

Before the full Senate votes on the bill, likely next month, senators are certain to face fierce lobbying efforts from gun-rights groups and those who favor tougher gun laws, including mayors, parents and clergy.

Obama's Democrats control the Senate, 55-45. Yet 60 votes may be needed to clear a possible Republican procedural roadblock to a vote on the measure.

"I don't think the bill will get more than 50 votes," Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Reuters.

Chairman Patrick Leahy, a gun enthusiast who target shoots on his Vermont farm, joined nine fellow Democrats in voting for Feinstein's bill. But he said he wasn't completely comfortable it.

"I have told her I have some concerns about some aspects of it, but I feel this is a matter of such importance that it should be voted by the whole Senate, not just by this committee," Leahy said.

The assault weapons ban bill is the fourth gun measure approved by the committee in the past two weeks, all on party line or largely party line votes.

The others would expand criminal background checks on gun buyers, make it a federal crime to buy a gun on behalf of someone who is prohibited from owning one, and provide $40 million a year in federal matching funds for each of the next 10 years to improve school security.

The only one that seems likely to win approval by the Senate and be sent to the Republican-led House of Representatives for consideration is the measure to enhance school security. The one to expand background checks may also survive if Democrats can reach a compromise on it with Republicans.

Obama met privately on Wednesday with House Republicans and acknowledged difficulty finding much common ground with their party, including on gun control, a White House official said.

In a tacit acknowledgment that the assault weapons ban is unlikely to be passed, Obama said if they cannot agree on it, then perhaps they can agree on expanded background checks and a crackdown on gun trafficking, the official said.

(Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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