The Assault Weapons Ban: What Was Done and What Will Be Done

| December 17, 2012


Since the shooting that killed twenty-seven people in Newtown, Connecticut, Democrats and Republicans are as cleaved apart as they’ve ever been. The public mourning phase following mass gun-related homicides in the United States remains the same as it always has been. While once-civilized debates would arise after a few-day’s grace period, now tautological firestorms erupt over firearms before the gunpowder settles. But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1994, prior to the Congressional vote to ban assault weapons, presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan joined forces and sent a letter to every member of the House asking for an up vote on the controversial legislation. (Former President George H.W. Bush did not sign the letter.)

“This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. . .  Although assault weapons account for less than 1 percent of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10 percent of the guns traced to crime. . .

While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

The law passed by the slimmest of margins: 216 in favor to 214 voting against it, with three congressmen abstaining. President Clinton, who had campaigned on the issue, signed the legislation into law the same day.

Ten years later, in 2004, when the bill was set to expire — under what’s known as a sunset provision — presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton sent a letter to President George W. Bush:

 “We are pleased that you support reauthorization of the federal Assault Weapons Act, which is scheduled to expire in September. Each of us, along with President Reagan, worked hard in support of this vital law, and it would be a grave mistake if it were allowed to sunset.

There continues to be strong support for this law among our nation’s police officers who risk their lives every day to protect the public. That is because they remember the days prior to the enactment of the law in 1994 when military-style, semiautomatic firearms had become the weapons of choice for gangs, drug traffickers, and paramilitary extremist groups. The firearm death rate soared as criminals used these weapons, outfitted with 20, 50 and even hundred round ammunition clips, to kill, maim, and terrorize. We cannot go back to those days.

At a time when terrorism continues to be a serious threat, it is even more imperative that we renew the Assault Weapons Act and limit access to military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. But with upcoming recesses, there are not many legislative days left for Congress to renew the law. We urge you to make reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Act a top priority for your Administration and spur Congress to action. If we can be of assistance to you in this regard, we are ready to do so.”

Though the president had previously stated that he was in favor of signing the renewed bill, he applied no pressure on Congress to put the legislation back up for a vote. When asked what Bush’s intentions were, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters “The president doesn’t set the Congressional timetable. Congress sets the timetable.” And the bill expired.

Since the ban’s lapse, mass deaths from assault weapons have increased as is evidenced by the following graph by Sam Wong of the Princeton Election Consortium.(Note that during the ban between 1994 and 2004, deaths decreased with the exception of the spike in 1999 following Columbine)

The question is not whether Congress will renew the assault weapons ban, but how much they should strengthen it.

Recently Senator Dianne Feinstein that she will be introducing a new bill this month:

“We’re crafting this one. It’s being done with care. It’ll be ready on the first day,” she said. “It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation, and the possession. Not retroactively, but prospectively. It will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than ten bullets…there will be a bill.”

Notably quiet during the gun control debate, thus far, are the last two Republican presidents — and considering their aforementioned track record, it’s no wonder. It’s easy to light a candle, or to put twenty stars for each child who died in Connecticut as your status update, but standing up to gun lobbyists and demanding an assault weapons ban is the only truly meaningful way to honor the victims. Call your representatives in Congress and demand it.

There is no need for hoi polloi to own assault weapons in this country — Ford knew it, Carter knew it, Reagan knew, and Clinton knew it. And as Feinstein so succinctly put it, “These weapons are not for hunting deer, they’re for hunting people.”

The bill will pass but like the president said today in his news conference — it’s up to us to pressure our Congressmen,  Take action.


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