WASHINGTON – If Washington’s effort to reach a deal on the “fiscal cliff” looks daunting, just wait for the debate over what to do about mass shootings like the one that killed 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., clashed sharply over Feinstein’s proposal to ban military-style assault weapons.

“The question comes, what do we do about the growing sophistication of military weapons on the streets of our cities?” Feinstein said.

“When you have someone walking in and slaying, in the most brutal way, 6-year olds, something is really wrong,” said Feinstein, who has made gun control a key issue since she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 when her colleague Harvey Milk and the mayor, George Moscone, were shot and killed in City Hall by a rival politician.

Feinstein has proposed to prohibit the type of semiautomatic rifles used in the Newtown shooting and other recent mass killings, adding that her bill would be much tougher than the loophole-ridden assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004. Assault rifles already in circulation would remain legal, but the owners would have to register them and be licensed. Her bill also would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Limiting guns is precisely the wrong answer, Graham said.

Crime is at record lows in part because guns are more widespread than ever, he said. He endorsed the proposal by the National Rifle Association to put armed guards in every school. He said he owns an AR-15, the type of semiautomatic rifle used in the Newtown school shooting.

“What she is proposing is a massive intervention,” Graham said. “Gun sales are up, and crime is down. You’re not going to be able to stop mass murderers with no criminal record just by taking my AR-15 and making me pay $200 and get my fingerprints and say I can’t buy another one.

“The best solution to protect children is to have somebody there to stop the shooter, not get everybody’s gun in the country.”

Feinstein responded that there was an armed guard at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, but he was unable to “stop the shooters” from killing 15 people and wounded 23.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” President Obama, who supports an assault weapons ban, said such measures could be enacted only if the public puts pressure on Congress.

“We’re not going to get this done unless the American people decide it’s important,” he said.

“And so this is not going to be simply a matter of me spending political capital,” Obama said. “One of the things that you learn, having now been in this office for four years, is the old adage of Abraham Lincoln’s — that with public opinion there’s nothing you can’t do and without public opinion there’s very little you can get done in this town.”

Obama said he would make a series of proposals and put “my full weight behind it … but ultimately the way this is going to happen is because the American people say, ‘That’s right. We are willing to make different choices for the country and we support those in Congress who are willing to take those actions.”‘

The day of the Newtown shootings, he said, “was the worst day of my presidency.”

But the question is “whether we are actually shook up enough by what happened here that it does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts away.” 

— The Associated Press and Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.


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