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Assault weapons ban approved by Senate panel

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She and other Democrats also argued that there are limits on many constitutional rights. Leahy said the state Board of Education in Cruz's home state "has told people what books they should or shouldn't read" - a reference to that conservative-led board that controls the state's school curriculum standards.

Cruz said lawmakers should make decisions about gun legislation using "facts and data and by the Constitution, not by passion."

Before the ban was approved, Democrats defeated Republican amendments seeking to exempt groups including sexual abuse victims and people who live near the Southwest border.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Feinstein's measure wouldn't stop criminals from obtaining assault weapons and complained, "We're going to give the American citizens a pea-shooter to defend themselves with."

Feinstein said there was no evidence that people can't defend themselves just as well with a handgun.

At one point, Leahy, an avid gun owner, said some of the debate reminded him of movies depicting "zombie takeovers," adding, "I've always been perfectly satisfied with my .45 that I have at home."

Feinstein's bill would ban semi-automatic weapons - guns that fire one round and automatically reload - that can take a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature like a pistol grip.

It specifically bans 157 named weapons. In an effort to avoid antagonizing those who use them for sports, the measure allows 2,258 rifles and shotguns that are frequently used by hunters.

It also exempts any weapons that are lawfully owned whenever the bill is enacted.

Many expect the assault weapons ban won't be included in the basic bill the Senate debates next month, but will be offered as an amendment. That would mean it would likely need 60 votes to prevail in the 100-member chamber - a difficult margin for Feinstein since there are only 53 Democratic senators plus two independents who usually side with them.

"The vote is uphill. I truly understand it," she said.

Separating the ban from more popular measures would also make it easier for red-state Democrats to vote against the ban but still leave them available to back the rest of the legislation. Several senators said they thought the ban on high-capacity magazines could pass.

The House's Republican leaders have said they'll wait for the Senate to act before moving on legislation. They've not expressed support for an assault weapons ban.

They have discussed improving how states report data on people with serious mental health and drug abuse problems to the federal background check system. Both parties see that as a major flaw that needs to be fixed.

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