By Erin Kelly and Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Dianne Feinstein seemed to momentarily disarm her longtime gun control opponent Wednesday when she offered a friendly welcome to the leader of the National Rifle Association at the first congressional hearing on gun violence since the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
"It's good to see our witnesses - even you, Mr. LaPierre," the California Democrat said to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president. "I guess we tangled 18 years ago. You look pretty good, actually."
Feinstein's comments drew a smile from LaPierre and chuckles in the Senate Judiciary Committee's packed hearing room.
Still, Feinstein made it clear that she and LaPierre remain polar opposites on the issue of gun control.
Feinstein last week introduced a bill that would reinstate a federal assault weapons ban - a ban she originally authored in 1994, only to see it expire a decade later. She and LaPierre fought fiercely over the ban in 1994.
The senator's latest bill would ban 157 makes and models of military-style assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons, outlaw firearms with fixed ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 rounds, and ban civilian weapons that differ only slightly from military models meant only for combat. The measure would exempt 2,258 makes and models of hunting and sporting rifles.
The NRA opposes the measure, calling it a "wrong-headed approach" that violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
After making her initial comments to LaPierre, Feinstein focused her questioning on Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, who serves as chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. Johnson said he supports Feinstein's bill.
"This is such a hard debate because people have such fixed positions," Feinstein said. "Police, I think, see killings as they are. Many people do not. The streets speak about this issue."
Johnson agreed with Feinstein that technological improvements in firearms since 1994 have given today's assault weapons greater velocity and what the senator called "killing power" that "tears through young bodies."
But LaPierre said the way to protect children from the kind of mass shootings that happened in Newtown is to ensure that schools have armed security.
"It's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children," LaPierre said. "About a third of our schools have armed security already -- because it works. And that number is growing."
Feinstein said LaPierre's recommendation to put more armed guards at schools won't stop the mass shootings.
"Most people believe, sure we can have guards at schools," Feinstein said. "What do you do about malls? What do you do about movie theaters? What do you do about businesses? We can't have a totally armed society."
LaPierre also said that Congress needs to ensure that privacy laws don't prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But he also denounced calls by some senators for universal background checks for all gun sales.
"When it comes to the issue of background checks, let's be honest ... background checks will never be 'universal' because criminals will never submit to them," LaPierre said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he hopes his committee will pass legislation in February. It would then have to go to the full Senate for a vote. Reaching consensus in the Senate won't be easy, and any kind of gun control legislation will face an even tougher challenge in the Republican-led House. Feinstein's attempt to reinstate the assault weapons ban will be especially difficult because even Democrats such as Leahy from rural areas may not support it.
"Obviously there's more work that needs to be done," Leahy said. "We will respect the diversity of viewpoints represented here today. If there's one thing we can all agree on: we want to end the violence that breaks all our hearts."
Feinstein, with Leahy's approval, plans to lead her own hearing on gun violence. She objected to the fact that three of the five-member witness panel that spoke and answered questions Wednesday were strong opponents of gun control.
The veteran California senator experienced gun violence firsthand as a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1978 when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed at City Hall. Feinstein was the first to find Milk after hearing gunshots.
Contact Erin Kelly at email@example.com
Gannett Washington Bureau