Why Congress Wimped Out on the Assault Weapons Ban
Business + Economy

Why Congress Wimped Out on the Assault Weapons Ban

REUTERS/Larry Downing

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.

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.”

But given the difficulty of overcoming high powered opposition from the NRA and gun rights advocates at the state and national level, Obama also signed a series of executive orders to achieve part of his goals. Obama’s drive for tougher federal gun laws contrasts sharply with his earlier stands.

Despite campaigning in 2008 on the promise of convincing Congress to reauthorize a ban on assault weapons, Obama did not seek a renewal of the weapons ban after taking office. On February 25, 2009 newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder repeated the Obama administration’s desire to reinstate the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Yet Obama scrapped the idea of seeking a renewal of the weapons bans weeks later, telling ABC News that “none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy.” 

Now, in the wake of the Newtown shootings and a new Washington Post-ABC poll showing that 58 percent of Americans favor an assault weapons ban, the Obama administration has moved gun control   front and center as a top priority. But whether he can make any headway on Capitol Hill, in the face of strong opposition from Republicans and some Democrats from pro-gun districts and the well financed gun lobby, remains to be seen.

Sen. Feinstein, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.,  and other advocates  of strict controls on assault rifles contend that it shouldn’t be easy to gain access to weapons so powerful  and destructive — or to magazines capable of holding large numbers of  bullets. The gunman in Connecticut used 30-bullet clips, enabling him to fire at will until the police arrived. 

But coming up with an effective solution is a major challenge. Experts who have studied the previous law agree that it was so riddled with loopholes that it was generally ineffective. The biggest problem was confusion over what technically constituted an “assault weapon,” according to a Washington Post analysis of the law. There were fully automatic weapons, which fire continuously when the trigger is held down. Those have been strictly regulated since 1934. Then there are semiautomatic weapons that reload automatically but fire only once each time the trigger is depressed. Semiautomatic pistols and rifles are quite common in the United States.

Congress was unwilling to ban all semiautomatic weapons — which was tantamount to banning most guns, the Post analysis noted. So in drafting the 1994 ban, lawmakers mainly focused on 18 specific firearms, as well as certain military-type features on guns. Certain models of AR-15s and AK-47s were banned. Any semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount was an “assault weapon.” But a semiautomatic rifle with just a pistol grip might be permissible. The complexity of the regulations made them easy to evade.

For the 10 years that the ban was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture the proscribed assault weapons for use by private citizens. The law also set a limit of no more than 10 bullets in high-capacity magazines. However, there was a huge loophole: Any assault weapon or magazine that was manufactured before the law went into effect in 1994 was legal to own or resell. At the time, there were roughly 1.5 million assault weapons and more than 24 million high-capacity magazines in private hands. Some of them were used to shoot 39 people at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 while the ban was in effect.

After the ban was lifted, no one bothered to track the impact of the expiration. NBC News says the Police Executive Research Forum reported several findings in a 2010 study, "Guns and Crime: Breaking New Ground by Focusing on the Local Impact."

  • 37 percent of police agencies reported noticeable increases in the use of assault weapons by criminals.
  • 53 percent reported increases in large-caliber handguns, such as .40 caliber weapons.
  • 38 percent reported increases in criminals use of semiautomatic weapons with high capacity magazines.

Yet when the weapons ban came up for reauthorization, Democrats did not talk that much about it, according to The New York Times. Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who was in a tough re-election fight in 2004, said voters, unaware that the ban was set to expire, had not made it an issue, and that neither had she.

Many believe, however, that this time is different. Vice President Joseph Biden, who headed a task force that developed Obama’s gun and anti-violence proposals, said, “I have no illusions about what we’re up against and how hard the task is in front of it, but I also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened” at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown. “The world has changed and it’s demanding action.”