For those who question whether anything will ever be done to curb the use of military grade weaponry for mass shootings in the United States, history provides some good news—and some bad. The good news is that there is, within the recent past, an example of a president—namely Bill Clinton—who successfully wielded the powers of the White House to institute a partial ban of assault weapons from the nation’s streets. The bad news, however, is that Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.
In 1994, Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. Given the potent dynamics of Second Amendment politics, it was a signal accomplishment. Yet the story behind the ban has been largely forgotten since it expired in 2004 and, in part, because the provision was embedded in the larger crime bill.
Clinton had to improvise a whip apparatus on Capitol Hill to work the legislative membership on both sides of the aisle when his party’s leadership refused to cooperate. His chief congressional affairs lobbyist, Patrick Griffin, recalled the effort in a 2004 oral history recorded with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. What is striking about Griffin’s account, parts of which appears below, is his tone of exasperation with the president, who would not yield to repeated pleas to stop what others counseled was an enormous mistake. Griffin, charged with protecting the president’s interests on Capitol Hill, accurately foresaw the implications of what he was doing. Here is Griffin’s story in a condensed and edited form, as it appears in my forthcoming book, Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History:
One of the first things that [Clinton] took on when he got [to Washington] was this crime bill. There had been crime bills floating around in the Democratic Congress for 12 years, five bills that had never become law. Part of repositioning Democrats was to be tough on crime and to be for the death penalty. We had 28 new death penalties in our proposed bill. It was not a high moment in criminal justice policy.
The black caucus uniformly was against it. The Hispanic caucus was against it. It was tough. How do we pass a crime bill with our constituency so stridently against it? Clinton, remember, in the middle of his election campaign went back and pulled the [switch to electrocute] some guy. That was one dynamic. The other was Clinton insisted that we put the assault weapon ban in it. That was a very big dynamic. There’s one little story here that had a big impression on me.
We were out at a Senate retreat, he and I, and Mrs. Clinton were there, as was [George] Stephanopoulos. At the retreat he gives a speech. I’m sitting off the stage and [California Senator Dianne] Feinstein raises this question, “Where is the assault weapon ban in the Senate?” This woman is a senator on the Judiciary Committee asking the president of the United States. Up until this point I thought we were kind of slow-walking the assault weapon ban, given the politics of it. I thought that was a good idea—we’d react on the issue if we had to.
He turns to me and he says, “Griffin, where is it?” I said, “It’s in the Senate Committee waiting for mark-up.” He knew she was trying to gin him up. I didn’t realize it at the moment. I just thought it was a stupid question, so I didn’t think anything of it. The next morning we’re on Marine One going back to the White House. We’re playing hearts or something, and all of a sudden he puts the cards down and says, “Why didn’t you brief me as to where this was?” I said, “Mr. President, it would be a ridiculous thing to brief you where all the legislation is. It would never occur to me that you would need to know the status of all of our proposed legislation when talking to senators who were responsible for the disposition of the legislation.” I asked, “Why would you feel you needed to know?
“What do you mean, ‘Why do I need to know?’”. . . . He’s yelling back at me how irresponsible of me to suggest that he wouldn’t be terribly interested in such an important piece of legislation like the assault ban. I said, “I thought we were just kind of slow walking this provision,” which I was sure we were. He responded, appearing shocked and offended by saying “What? How dare you think that I—that is so wrong!” He went into this righteous rage at me. I’m looking at him. Did I make this up? Is this a unilateral decision that I had made here with [chief of staff] Mack [McLarty]? He said, “We’re going to move on every piece of legislation that makes sense—” I said, “Mr. President, I think this is going to be very difficult.” His response was, “How dare you think that there is any other option. What would people think of me if I did not follow through on the assault weapon ban?” “I’m sorry, Mr. President. I really got that wrong.”
So I come back, and I tell Leon [Panetta, McLarty’s successor]. He said that I had not come up with this notion on my own. No one stepped in to correct the president. There was no need to go back into it with him now, because we’re going to move ahead on the assault weapon ban. It was a disaster from day one. I go and tell Speaker [Tom] Foley, who would wind up losing his seat in the upcoming election due to this issue. . . . [Speaker] Foley, [Majority Leader Richard] Gephardt, and [Majority Whip David] Bonior all said, “You are all crazy. We want to see the president.” I responded stating, “Do you think I would be promoting this if I wasn’t being told to do so?”
We brought them into the Oval Office. It was the three of them, myself, Leon—I don’t know who else was there. Maybe George [Stephanopoulos] was there—the president and the vice president. The vice president was all, “We’re going for it.” These three guys said, “We’re ready to help you on the crime bill, but Mr. President, don’t push the assault weapon ban.” The president said, “I’m absolutely going to promote it.” I can’t remember exactly the dynamic. I think we had to wind up doing it as an amendment. They said, “We’re not going to bring up the crime bill that has the assault weapon ban in it. You’re going to have to [amend] it on the floor. We’re not going to have anything to do with it.” In that meeting they asked him three times—Foley with the big old kind of hound dog [look], “Please, Mr. President, don’t push the assault weapon ban.” Just shaking his head. And Bonior and Gephardt. Gephardt, who said, “I’m for it, but this is going to be devastating to our troops. Please don’t do it.” They deliberately went at it three times and the president just says, “We’re going for it.”
They said, “Fine. We’re not going to help you at all. If you’re going to pass this crime bill, or this ban, we’ll have nothing to do with it.” They told us that we would have to set up our own whip operation. We were accustomed to using the leadership. “You’re on your own,” they said. The president says, “I understand that. We’re going to take care of it.” And he looks at Leon and me.
From that day forward we then get the crime bill scheduled. We now have no cooperation from the Democratic leadership. They give Leon and me a room to work out of to set up our own whip operation. We then work with some of the Democrats who are sympathetic. We know we can’t pass it only with Democrats so we figure we’ve got 30 to 40 Republicans. We need 40 or 45.
We go to [Minority Leader Robert] Michel, who’s the head of the [House] Republicans at the time, and he says, “I don’t know if I can help you. Why don’t you talk to [Newt] Gingrich?” Newt was already moving in on Michel. So we go to Newt and he says, “I don’t want any part of this crap. But I’ll see if I can authorize somebody to work with you guys.” Leon and I are setting up shop up in one of Gephardt’s suite rooms, and Newt sends to us [Republican Michael] Castle from Delaware as being the point person to work with Republicans on this, because Newt knew he had guys who would be supportive.
Leon and I set up our operation. We go through, member by member, trying to convince, basically the Democratic black caucus to vote for this bill. Almost every one of these members had never voted for a death penalty before—same thing with the Hispanic caucus. Then we’re having a separate conversation with the Republicans. Basically, it became one of the real vintage stories of [this presidency]. The deals were not necessarily made on the substance of the issue. The candy store was open. . . It was a very transactional kind of setup. Eventually, we got enough votes to get the crime bill through. The crime bill came to the floor without the assault ban. The intent was to have [New York Democrat Charles] Schumer offer the ban as an amendment—I’d been dragging my feet about going up to the Hill that day. The vote was going to be very close and I guess I didn’t want to be publicly associated with it. My staff pleaded with me to go. “You’re crazy. You’ve got to be there.” I said, “This just stinks. This is not going to work.”
Eventually, they made me come down [to the House chamber]. I remember standing up with this big knot in my stomach, and we’re voting on the assault weapon ban and we win by one vote. I just had all my fingers crossed [hoping] that we were going to lose. Everybody’s delighted [in the White House]. There’s cheering. It was a big operation. Rahm Emanuel had put together this external outreach operation working with cops and other external supporters. He did a brilliant thing with that.
I come back and I’m just sick to my stomach. Everybody’s cheering, pictures are being taken, we’re in the Rose Garden, high fives everywhere. I said, “Mr. President, there’s going to be trouble on this.” . . . Then it went to the Senate. Dole is now getting traction for stopping everything he can on the president’s agenda. We’re in August or July. It’s now moved over to the Senate and we’re having this leadership meeting to prepare for floor consideration. Foley comes over with the leadership. We’re in [Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell’s office. I’ll never forget—it was a night of storms, lightning just crashing. You can just hear Foley’s mind racing, saying, “We’re still not aligned with the gods on this thing,” or some clever comment. . . . [We] made some concession [in the Senate] and, boom, we got the bill done and went to conference [and finally passed]. That was a whole other trauma, a story in itself. The rest is history. We lost 53 seats in the rural areas [in the 1994 midterms], particularly in the South.
When asked if this bill was a key element, Griffin said: “Absolutely. Yes. I’d say, for 40 of those seats, yes. For [Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Jack] Brooks (of Texas) to lose his seat [after 42 years]? Foley? These guys had been safe forever. And they voted against all this stuff but they were still targeted politically because their president was for the [assault weapon] ban.”
The political price for passing the ban included the loss of Congress to the Republicans in 1994, endangering Clinton’s agenda, and creating the partisan conditions on Capitol Hill that produced his own impeachment. Even Clinton himself, looking back on the assault weapon ban in his memoir, My Life, concluded that he had likely “pushed the Congress, the country, and the administration too hard.”
But history may ultimately judge Clinton less harshly than his contemporaries. As the roster of mass shootings lengthens, a careworn weariness may put Clinton’s stubborn insistence on a weapons ban in a different light. Perhaps this will be one of those rare occasions, noted by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage, when a costly act of political conviction is rewarded in time. “Sometimes, but sadly only sometimes,” Kennedy observed, history produces “the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”