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: