WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who 35 years ago discovered the bullet-riddled body of gay activist Harvey Milk, reacted with anger Tuesday that gun-control legislation the Senate is to consider next month will not include reinstatement of an assault weapons ban, a measure she had fought desperately to keep.
"How many assault weapons do you need circulating?" Ms. Feinstein said to reporters, noting that her bill, which had almost no chance of a House hearing, exempted many weapons. "To have these mass killings is such a blight on everything that America stands for."
At a Senate hearing last week, Ms. Feinstein said she still could not get out of her mind looking for the pulse of Milk, her colleague at the time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in the process "putting my fingers in a bullet hole."
Senate Democrats plan to introduce after the Easter recess a bill widely supported by both parties that would increase penalties for people who buy guns for those barred from having them, known as straw purchasing. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Ms. Feinstein on Monday that her assault weapons ban would not be included in the bill.
"I tried my best," Ms. Feinstein said with obvious disappointment. "My best, I guess, wasn't good enough."
Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed four pieces of gun legislation: the straw purchasing measure; the assault weapons ban, which included limits on gun magazine sizes; a grant program for school security; and enhanced background checks for gun buyers.
The Senate bill is likely to include the school safety measure, and it may be expanded to include the enhanced background checks. But Mr. Reid is weighing the relative merits of bringing that measure to the floor, which for now has limited GOP support.
Mr. Reid said he would allow the assault weapons ban and magazine-size curbs to be offered as amendments, Ms. Feinstein said.
"I have said I want people to have the ability to vote on" various gun measures, Mr. Reid said Tuesday. "My job is to find one of those that I can bring to the floor."
Mr. Reid said that while he felt sympathy for Ms. Feinstein, her bill had far fewer than the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. He will introduce the one measure that does have ample bipartisan support, the straw purchasing provision, which would make the already-illegal practice a felony and increase penalties.
But a bill limited to stemming straw purchases would be all but certain to enrage groups that have been seeking broader legislation. They want measures that would make it more difficult for criminals and mentally ill people to obtain firearms and limit magazine sizes.
If Mr. Reid considers only the straw purchasing measure, it is likely that senators who favor gun rights will offer a flood of pro-gun amendments, many of them likely to pass the full Senate, which could essentially turn a bill designed to strengthen gun regulations into one that enhances gun rights.
It is almost certain that Mr. Reid will at least add the provision to renew a grant program for school security, but even that is not a sure thing because of the nation's fiscal constraints.
Mr. Reid must also weigh whether to add a provision that would extend background checks to private sales of guns, a measure that would exempt family members and some others from those checks.
While that idea has broad support among Democrats and some Republicans, many lawmakers oppose it because it would require the same record-keeping as is done by gun stores in sales made within their walls.
As it stands, the assault weapons ban will probably still receive a vote as an amendment to the underlying package, as will a separate measure that would limit magazine sizes to 10 rounds.
"The enemies on this are very powerful," Ms. Feinstein said, referring to the National Rifle Association. "I've known that all my life."