STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee here in Washington has approved a new gun control bill. It strengthens penalties for those who buy weapons for people who are legally barred from purchasing firearms themselves. This is the first federal gun law to head to the Senate floor since the Newtown massacre. We should say proposed federal gun law. And as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, it's just the beginning of what looks to be a long legislative fight.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It was as if the senators were using the committee room as rehearsal space for the larger floor debates to come. The committee started the day with four bills to look at. And when the proposal to ban assault weapons came up, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham jumped in to stick up for the AR-15 rifle. Imagine a scenario, Graham said, like a cyber attack or a hurricane, where the power goes out, and law and order break down. An AR-15 could be helpful.
REPRESENTATIVE LINDSEY GRAHAM: I have an AR-15. I'm not going to do anything illegally with it, but I believe that it is a better defense weapon in that environment than a double-barrel shotgun, because it has more than two bullets. It's an intimidating-looking weapon.
CHANG: The AR-15 is the military-style weapon police say was used in the Newtown shootings. And now, both sides of the debate are using the December tragedy as a way to get their messages across. Like Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. He says the capacity of shooter Adam Lanza's ammunition magazine actually saved some lives that morning.
REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: More than 10 children are alive today because of his need to change magazines, and more would be if his magazine had been limited to 10 rounds, as our legislation would do.
CHANG: Minutes before Blumenthal made that point, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa had whipped out a letter to read - from a father whose child was killed during the Newtown shootings. A man named Mark Mattioli, who doesn't want a ban on assault weapons.
REPRESENTATIVE CHUCK GRASSLEY: He continues to say you will not increase my safety, only obstruct me from protecting myself from criminals who may possess one of the existing guns out there.
CHANG: So while the two sides ping-ponged back and forth, trying to bring in the real world to a legislative debate, some of the real world sat in the chairs watching the show, marveling at how slowly, how incrementally, things seemed to move.
LAUREN SONNENMARK: It does feel somewhat like they are - keep bringing up these amendments to postpone it. So I'm disappointed that we didn't get more accomplished today.
CHANG: Lauren Sonnenmark's life was touched by gun violence in 1982, when a mentally ill man in Miami gunned down a family friend at work. Seven other people were killed, too. Sonnenmark remembers the day her father arrived at her house to break the news to her.
SONNENMARK: You know, the thing that really struck me, my dad was a really tough guy. He joined the Navy at 15, he was a veteran of World War II, and that was the only time I'd ever seen him cry.
CHANG: People in the crowd like Sonnenmark, with stories to share, or connections to those with stories to share, trickled out after the Committee session. They were told later, it would be another week before the members would take up the next three gun bills. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.