When Democrats won on guns

Gun control advocates want to replicate their biggest ever victory over the NRA. Will the president lead the fight?

Topics: Opening Shot, Editor's Picks, Dianne Feinstein, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Connecticut shooting, assault weapons ban,

Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who has been at forefront of the debate over gun access for two decades, said on Sunday that she’ll introduce legislation to revive the federal assault weapons ban when the new Congress convenes in January. She also said that she expects President Obama, who vowed at Sunday night’s memorial service in Newtown, Connecticut to ““use whatever power this office holds” to prevent future tragedies, to join the fight. But even though there are hints that the political climate on guns really is shifting, the odds of Feinstein’s bill becoming law still aren’t that good.

To understand what Feinstein and other gun control advocates are up against, it’s worth recapping the history of the assault weapons ban, which was first enacted in 1994 and expired without congressional action in 2004. Since then, there has been intermittent talk of trying to bring it back, generally in the wake of mass shootings like the one in Connecticut last Friday. But in the eight years since it lapsed, neither the House nor the Senate has ever voted on restoring the ban, and even though President Obama says he supports doing so, he’s not made it a legislative priority.

The original ban grew out of widespread public anxiety about the soaring violent crime rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The issue of crime consistently ranked as a top voter priority in elections and the national Democratic Party – along with a scattering of individual Republicans – aggressively advertised its support for gun control initiatives. When Bill Clinton came to power in 1993, he enjoyed large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which put the party in position to finally deliver.

First up was the Brady Bill, named after Ronald Reagan’s first press secretary, Jim Brady, who was paralyzed during the attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981. The bill, which called for a five-day waiting period and mandatory background check for handgun purchases, had languished for years, but in November ’93 it made it to Clinton’s desk and was signed into law.

That set the stage for a much bigger fight over a sweeping crime bill that Clinton and congressional Democrats drew up. It called for steering money to cities to hire up to 100,000 new police officers and provided federal support for a slew of crime prevention programs. It also included a prohibition on the sale of semiautomatic firearms – the assault weapons ban.

The crime bill was met with fierce – and bipartisan – opposition on Capitol Hill. Republicans mostly focused their public objections on the price-tag (more than $30 billion), claiming that the prevention program the bill would fund, like midnight basketball leagues, amounted to pork barrel spending. Dozens of pro-gun Democrats also withheld support, simply because of the assault weapons ban. A test vote in the House in the summer of 1994 failed, imperiling the bill and leading to loud calls that Clinton cut out the assault weapons provision. But the president refused, instead negotiating with a handful of House Republicans – mostly notably an Ohioan named John Kasich – to cut out a few billion dollars in costs. With 46 Republicans voting yes, the bill cleared the House on a 235-195 margin.

In the Senate, six Republicans – Arlen Specter, John Chafee, James Jeffords, Nancy Kassebaum, William Cohen and John Danforth – broke ranks and the bill passed on a 61-38 vote. Two Democrats, Richard Shelby (because of his opposition to the ban) and Russ Feingold (because of his opposition to the death penalty) voted no.

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The success of the ’94 crime bill can be attributed to several factors. One, obviously, was Democrats’ control of the executive and legislative branches. Another was the public’s demand for action on gun violence – which created an incentive for Democrats to use their power to enact meaningful gun control legislation. A third was the presence of a critical number of pro-ban Republicans. Some of them, like Chafee and Jeffords, represented the now-extinct liberal wing of the GOP; today, we’d probably know them as Democrats. But others, like Kasich, felt compelled to respond to the public’s sense of urgency and the broad popularity of the assault weapons ban.

Those factors were not in place 10 years later, when the ban came up for reauthorization. By 2004, Republicans controlled the White House and violent crime had fallen dramatically. Crime and gun violence were no longer major concerns to voters, and Democrats had all but dropped guns from their electoral playbook. There was still broad, instinctive support among voters for the concept of an assault weapons ban – enough to make George W. Bush say that he’d sign a reauthorization if Congress would pass it. But there was no real pressure at all on congressional Republicans to act, and they opted to let it die.

To be sure, the climate is different today. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and the uptick in mass shootings these past few years may ultimately create the sort of urgency that propelled the gun legislation of the ‘90s. Obama’s two public statements since Friday’s shootings have been vague on detail but nonetheless mark a potentially significant rhetorical shift; he’s going farther than he and most other national Democratic leaders have been willing to go for years. “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” the president said Sunday night. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

The new Senate in which Feinstein will introduce her ban next month will be more liberal than the current one and will include two more Democrats. But many of those Democrats are from states with large pro-gun populations. Convincing Joe Manchin, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp to back a gun control measure will be a tall order. And even if there’s something close to unity among Democrats, Republican crossover votes will be necessary to break a filibuster. It’s hard to see where those will come from. And, of course, even if the assault weapons ban makes it out of the Senate, there’s still the matter of the Republican-controlled House, which remains awash in Tea Party ideology.

But even if they don’t win this round, mean the fight is still worth waging for Feinstein and other gun control advocates. The Democratic Party’s public silence on gun issues has created an imbalanced public debate that favors the Second Amendment crowd. If new legislative victories are ultimately to be won, Democrats first need to reestablish the issue as a priority. Lining up behind and pushing hard for Feinstein’s bill would be a very logical first step.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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