WASHINGTON – Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., is haunted by many things that emerged from the investigation of the December mass shooting at a Newtown elementary school. Among them is the nagging question of what prompted the gunman, Adam Lanza, to put down his assault rifle after killing 20 children and pick up the pistol he used to end his own life.
“We do know that historically in these instances, amateurs have trouble switching magazines,” Murphy said, referring to the high-capacity ammunition feeding device used by Lanza to shoot scores of bullets in seconds. “I believe, and many of the parents there believe, that if Lanza had to switch cartridges nine times verses two times there would likely still be little boys and girls alive in Newtown today.”
It is that conviction that has helped put fresh scrutiny on the size of magazines as Congress debates new gun laws.
While influential lawmakers in both parties view a proposed ban on assault weapons as politically toxic, lawmakers seem increasingly open to a ban on high-capacity magazines, like the 15- and 30-round devices that have been used in shooting rampages from Aurora, Colo., to Tucson, Ariz., where congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, to Newtown.
Constitutional lawyers, including many conservatives, generally believe that limiting magazine size falls well within the boundaries of recent Supreme Court decisions on gun rights, and evidence suggests that a ban on large magazines would have reduced the number of those killed in mass shootings.
A growing number of lawmakers say they see a distinct difference between limits on magazine sizes, which they would support, and an assault weapons ban, which they would not.
“I see them as separate,” said Sen. Angus King Jr., I-Maine. “It’s the difference between appearance and functionality. High-capacity magazines have contributed to a lot of these tragedies.”
But the issue also gives pause to many lawmakers, particularly Senate Democrats up for re-election in states that generally support gun rights. They seem torn over whether a restriction on ammunition erodes the rights of law-abiding gun owners, as its opponent insist, or is merely a mild annoyance for those owners in the name of public safety.
“I’m ready to step off the status quo on guns,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va. “But I’ve got to work this one through in my mind.”