Survivors of the massacre at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., might teach their elders something with their crusade to break the easy access to assault weapons by potential mass murderers in the United States. But there are plenty of obstacles in the crusaders’ way.
Democrats did the right thing in September 1994, when they passed a federal ban on the manufacture and transfer of semi-automatic assault weapons and large capacity bullet magazines.
It seemed like a good idea. Efforts to restrict “assault weapons” at the federal level had been growing since 1989, after 34 children and a teacher were shot and five children killed in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard with a semi-automatic AK-47-style rifle, and a man crashed his pickup truck into a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in October 1991, and fired two semi-automatic pistols in the crowded dining room, leaving 23 people dead and 27 wounded. Former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan supported the banning of “semi-automatic assault guns,” citing a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 77% of Americans supported a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of such weapons.
In an earlier era, the National Rifle Association would have embraced such a ban on weapons of war being put in the hands of civilians. The NRA was formed in 1871 by Civil War veterans who were alarmed at the poor marksmanship of Union troops. It started organizing the creation of rifle clubs. Until the middle 1970s, the NRA mainly focused on gun safety for sportsmen, hunters and target shooters, and downplayed gun control issues. The NRA supported the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun-control law passed in the US, which stopped the widespread legal availability of fully automatic “Tommy guns,” silencers and sawed-off shotguns.
Karl Frederick, NRA president in 1934, testified during a hearing on the bill, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. ... I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
The NRA also went along with the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), which created a system to federally license gun dealers, banned mail order sales of guns and established restrictions on categories and classes of firearms.
But passage of the GCA galvanized a growing number of gun rights activists who pushed the NRA to focus more on politics and establish its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action in 1975, with Harlon Carter as director. The next year, its political action committee, the Political Victory Fund, was created in time for the 1976 elections.
At the NRA’s 1977 annual convention, gun rights activists defeated the incumbents, elected Carter as executive director, established its new motto, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed,” and took advantage of the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976, which ruled that that limits on election spending were an unconstitutional limit on freedom of speech, to flex its political muscles.
The NRA provided a conduit for gun manufacturers to tap the civilian market for semi-automatic assault weapons, such as the AR-15, with magazines carrying 30 rounds or more. Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the first candidate the NRA endorsed for president and by 1986, the NRA’s new interpretation of the Second Amendment was incorporated in the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens … to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.”
The Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 challenged the NRA’s new political power, and the polls said it was popular, but in the November 1994 mid-term elections, gun owners punished the Democrats, who lost 54 seats, including House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state, Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, as Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Democrats lost 10 Senate seats as Republicans gained a 53-47 majority in that chamber and President Bill Clinton spent the next six years working with a Republican Congress.
Dan Glickman was in his 18th year as a congressman from Kansas when he voted for the assault weapons ban in 1994. “A few months later, my time as a member of Congress was over,” he wrote in The Hill Feb. 22. “After 18 years in the House, I lost largely because of that vote. I would vote for that bill again in a heartbeat. But for those fighting for gun restrictions now, especially the kids from Marjery Stoneman Douglas High School, let my experience be a lesson.”
Glickman recalled that, during his last term in Congress, he managed to pass a bill to protect small airplane manufacturers in product liability lawsuits, which saved thousands of jobs his constituents. “I thought I would be greeted as a hero when I went out on the campaign trail. But that wasn’t the case. Many of the people in my district were avid gun owners, and the NRA … had made sure its membership knew how I voted on the assault weapons ban.
“I will never forget when I was out knocking on doors and I stopped by the home of a worker at one of those aircraft plants. He shook my hand and said, ‘Dan, you saved my job.’ So you can imagine my surprise when the next thing he said to me was, ‘I can’t vote for you in the coming election.’
“Shocked, I asked him why and his answer was simple. ‘Guns,’ he said. He went on to tell me, in so many words, that using firearms to hunt and shoot targets was his favorite hobby. But more than that, it was part of his cultural identity. He said he felt that my vote was the first stop on the way to confiscating all guns and banning future sales…
“Over the next several weeks, I met many other constituents just like him. After the election was over, the results showed that my support had tanked in areas with high gun ownership.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who sponsored the 1994 bill, tried unsuccessfully to renew the ban before it expired in 2004 and she made several more attempts since then. She introduced a new assault weapons ban in the Senate, along with 22 Democratic colleagues, after the shooting in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 and wounded 20 Nov. 4.
A number of surveys again show that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are popular among the general public. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that 68% of adults favor banning assault weapons, and 65% support a ban on high-capacity magazines. A CNN conducted Feb. 20 to 23 found that 70% of those surveyed now back stricter gun laws. That’s up significantly from 52% who took that position in an October survey shortly after the mass shooting in Las Vegas killed 58 people. Just 27% opposed more stringent laws, CNN found in the poll.
Still, gun control Republicans are practically extinct in Congress. In December the House passed a measure that would allow gun owners with concealed carry permits in one state to carry their semi-automatic weapons in every other state.
The country may finally be reaching a tipping point on the gun debate, but it will take the defeat of scores of NRA-beholden Republicans in the mid-term election, particularly in suburban swing districts, to clear the way for common-sense gun reform.
Take it from a former member of Congress who lost the vote of a man whose job he helped save, Glickman said. “Supporters of gun restrictions need to become more like the NRA if they wish to beat the NRA.” — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2018
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