When President Obama called for a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons Wednesday to help reduce gun violence, he was essentially resurrecting a measure that was the law of the land for a decade.
The question is, why was it allowed to expire in 2004 without a fight?
In 1994 during Bill Clinton’s presidency, a Democratic Congress outlawed the sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic assault weapons with high capacity bullet magazines. Ten years later, the ban lapsed as scheduled by law, thanks in part to complicated election-year politics and an intense lobbying effort by the feared National Rifle Association.
Since the ban expired, the tragic use of assault weapons has resulted in 28 mass gun killings, including the horrific Virginia Tech and Aurora theater massacres. But none of them made the President – and most of the nation – cry, until 20 elementary school children and 6 faculty members were slaughtered in Connecticut. That’s what led to calls for a reinstatement of the ban.
A POLITICAL SHOOTING GALLERY
Almost no one’s hands are clean on the chain of events that enabled the initial ban to expire in 2004. The law itself was hardly ideal, riddled with enough loopholes that firearms makers could continue to crank out the deadly weapons. President George W. Bush initially pledged to continue the ban in order to curtail violent crimes, but he backed away from that promise while in the thick of an intense 2004 reelection campaign.
Congress also retreated on any renewal. Then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., dismissed it as “feel good” legislation that contradicted the “will of the people.” And even many congressional Democrats who once championed the controversial ban when they were still in the majority, shied away from it because of the political risks involved.
Democrats condemned the influence of the NRA and said the ban could be renewed if Bush had wanted it so. "If you support something, you have a responsibility to advocate for it,'' Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the time. Then came the ’94 election.
Republicans took control of the House and Senate and President Clinton remarked that the measure might have cost Democrats 20 congressional seats. Some also believed that former Vice President Al Gore lost crucial states to Bush, including his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 election because he came out too strongly for gun control.
The demise of the nation’s last major effort to get semi-automatic assault rifles like the Bushmaster AR-15used by the gunman in Newtown, Conn., last month is a cautionary tale of massive political potholes as Obama now presses Congress to that ban along with scores of other measures including background checks on purchasers and limits to the size of gun magazines.
“Congress should restore a ban on military style assault weapons and a ten round limit for magazines,” Obama said yesterday during a White House event where he unveiled his proposals. The president pledged to press for congressional action on the new gun law proposals, declaring that the nation’s leaders are compelled to act by the tragedies of gun deaths across the country. “In the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality,” he said. “If there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”