Gun Control Is Not Impossible

President Clinton showed that with persistence and leadership, legislative restrictions on firearms are attainable.

President Bill Clinton argues for gun control during a White House briefing in 2000.  (William Philpott / Reuters )

As the United States tries to recover from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a feeling of pessimism is setting in among liberal politicians and pundits about whether gun control legislation is possible. Many Americans who have been following politics have seen this movie before and the ending is usually bleak.

The scenes are as predictable as a third-rate Hollywood film. The crisis opens with a devastating shooting at a school in which a mentally disturbed person uses lethal weapons against children. What follows are families grieving before the television cameras, a nation watching in total shock, and a few brave souls who step up to demand that the government take action. Occasionally, Congress debates legislative proposals to address the national gun problem. Some legislators point out how effective regulations have been in other countries as well as in some states. But in the inevitable next scene, the steel-hearted NRA steps in to remind politicians to whom they have given campaign contributions that there will be hell to pay for anyone who votes yes. Rather quickly, the legislation dies. Nothing else happens. This is how it all played out after the shooting in Las Vegas, when Congress failed to act on the “bump stocks” that a gunman used to kill 58 people on the strip.

Following the Florida shooting, with President Trump focused on mental health, and the Russia investigation, former President Barack Obama offered some leadership by calling for “common-sense” legislation, and assured a grieving nation that “we are not powerless” to do something about these tragedies.

Another voice of courage came from a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student named Emma Gonzalez, who told a rally that: “Maybe the adults have got used to saying, ‘It is what it is.’ But if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead.” In a remarkable moment, Gonzalez lit into politicians who accept money from the NRA and then say nothing can be done. “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS!”

Gonzalez and others who hope to mobilize proponents of gun restriction into action should draw some encouragement from the fact that in 1993 and 1994, a Democratic president worked with a Democratic Congress to pass legislation imposing gun restrictions. This was a moment when the political will from our leaders to take action, fueled by grass roots pressure, outflanked the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its effort to perpetually gridlock gun control. They paid a political price for doing so, but legislation passed.

When Bill Clinton became president in January 1993, the nation was reeling after a number of high profile shootings that had taken place over the past few years. In 1989, for instance, a gunman opened fire at children playing in the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, killing five kids and wounding 32 others. “There was mass chaos,” one teacher recalled, “There were kids running in every direction.”

During his first year in office, Clinton threw his support behind legislation that had languished in Congress as a result of NRA opposition: the Brady Bill. The legislation, named after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who had been severely injured during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981, would require background checks and a waiting period for the purchase of firearms. New York Representative Chuck Schumer had been pushing the legislation for several years but could not overcome gun rights advocates who said no.

Central to Clinton’s success was the fact that a number of former presidents, including Ronald Reagan, came out in favor of the bill. Recalling the assassination attempt, Reagan wrote in The New York Times: “This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now—the Brady bill—had been law …” At the same time, there was also ongoing pressure from grassroots organizations in key House districts. Handgun Control, Inc. mobilized its membership base of over one million-members and its $6.5 million budget behind this effort. In one full-page newspaper ad that they purchased, readers saw a picture of a KKK member holding a Colt AR-15 rifle. The headline read: “Why Is the NRA Allowing HIM Easy Access to Assault Weapons?” The organization, headed by Brady’s wife Sarah, deployed a political action committee and a voter education fund to sway politicians.

In the middle of the debate, support for legislation increased after another mass shooting. On July 1, 1993, a failed businessman named Gian Luigi Ferri entered an office building in San Francisco and opened fire. Eight people were killed; six wounded. “It was like a war zone; it was crazy,” said the owner of one store who witnessed the event. One man ran into his store crying “I’m going to die, I’m going to die.”

In late November 1993, Congress defied the conventional wisdom by passing the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The Brady Bill mandated background checks on firearm purchases and a five-day waiting period. Upon signing the bill, Clinton said that the legislation passed “because grass-roots America changed its mind and demanded that this Congress not leave here without doing something about this ... Americans are finally fed up with violence that cuts down another citizen with gunfire every 20 minutes.”

The following year, President Clinton moved forward with legislation to curb semi-automatic weapons. Once again, horrific incidents were elevating public concern. In January 1993, a man named Aimal Kasi fired an AK-47 assault rifle into the cars waiting in the turn lanes outside of the CIA. Culminating in April, a deadly 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidian Christian sect and ATF agents in Waco, Texas revealed the massive weapons stockpile that the Branch Davidians had obtained. In December 1993, Colin Ferguson unloaded his gun in a railroad car traveling from New York’s Penn Station, killing six people and injuring nineteen in the “Long Island Railroad Massacre.”

These and other incidents made it clear that the government needed to do more to restrict the ability of Americans to purchase certain kinds of weapons. On January 2, 1994 The Los Angeles Times published an article entitled “Gun Violence is Out of Control,” going through a series of gun-related incidents that took place within one day which were enough to justify an assault weapons ban. It was not surprising that polls showed strong public support for regulations.

The political fight, however, would not be easy. Gun control has been an issue where public demand usually loses out to interest group pressure, Clinton was already struggling politically. His major domestic initiative, health care reform, found little support in Congress, while a deficit-cutting tax hike he pushed through Congress the year before had energized conservatives. Republicans were calling for an investigation into the Whitewater scandal and the White House felt like it was on the ropes. The NRA was in no mood to go easy on this young president who had his back to the wall. “The NRA had already lost the fight to defeat the Brady Bill and was determined to prevail on this one, so that Americans would retain their right to ‘keep and bear’ rapid fire large-magazine weapons designed for one purpose only: to kill a great many people in a hurry,” Clinton recalled in his memoirs. The director of federal affairs at the National Rifle Association warned that the legislation aimed to “disarm” the American public and that the sponsors really wanted to eliminate “any type of firearm whenever presented with an emotionally charged opportunity to do so.”

On “Meet the Press,” the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre blasted Clinton for distinguishing between hunting rifles and assault weapons: “The good guns they don’t want to ban and the guns they want to ban all fire the same—none fires any faster, none makes any bigger holes, none shoot harder, none make any bigger noise.” In the Wall Street Journal, the libertarian author James Bovard sounded the alarms by writing that, “The main effect of banning assault weapons is to give government an excuse to arrest or imprison millions of Americans while doing little to nothing to reduce crime.”

But Clinton took a chance, risked his political capital, and pushed for the bill. When some congressional Democrats warned him that the legislation was too dangerous politically, according to congressional aide Patrick Griffin, the president stood firm. “We’re going for it,” he said. The battle was as bruising as expected. Gun rights supporters threw around money and used scare tactics to stop the legislation. After the House narrowly passed the assault weapons ban, Senate Democratic leaders made the decision to incorporate the measure into an omnibus crime package that included a number of conservative, “law and order,” measures such as expanding the use of the federal death penalty and increasing funds for federal prisons. Although core Democratic groups were opposed to the rest of the bill, the move made it more difficult for conservatives to kill the assault ban. The goal was to isolate the NRA.

When a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans in the House, backed by the NRA, teamed up with a small group of liberals (who opposed other parts of the bill) to defeat an early version of the legislation through a procedural vote, President Clinton stood firm. “Washington cannot walk away from you,” he told a crowd of police officers. He refused to withdraw the assault weapons ban from the legislation. He also used the power of the presidency to work with state and local officials as well as grassroots organizations to build pressure for the bill.

Clinton appeared with the National Association of Police Organizations in Minneapolis along with Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to condemn the NRA. He said Congress was “sticking it to” ordinary Americans through the “same old Washington game…” The president also organized a Rose Garden ceremony with the widower of a woman killed in the San Francisco shooting, along with their daughter, calling for gun reform. Clinton sent a letter to hunters urging them to support the measure. As someone who had been hunting since he was twelve, Clinton wrote, “I know the difference between a firearm used for hunting and target shooting and a weapon designed to kill people.” Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bensten, a Texas Democrat who had been hunting all his life and who fired guns in WWII, said there was no reason to make legal guns that were only used to kill humans.

Under strong presidential leadership, the bill regained its momentum. The omnibus crime legislation, with the assault weapons ban still in the package, made it through the House and Senate. Signed into law in September 1994, the legislation made it illegal to manufacture, transfer or possess numerous categories of assault weapons and established a ceiling on high-capacity magazines. The legislation also banned the sale or transfer of a handgun or handgun ammunition to a juvenile without parental consent, and prohibited juveniles from possessing a handgun or ammunition other than under specified conditions such as hunting. Under the legislation someone who was subject to a restraining order for domestic violence could not possess a firearm, while federal requirements for obtaining a license to be a firearms dealer were tightened.

As critics noted, the legislation was extremely flawed. Most important was the fact that the assault ban was connected to a punitive crime bill which had terrible repercussions for African Americans and Latinos, who would be victims of the prison-industrial complex that this bill helped to expand. Experts were also dismayed that legislators had included so many loopholes and exemptions in the bill to assure passage, that they limited its impact from the start. Many Democrats also blamed the legislation for the Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 (though most agree that much more was at work in Democratic losses). When the legislation expired in 2004, the Republican Congress and a Republican president allowed the prohibitions to end.

Nonetheless, the section of the legislation that dealt with assault weapons was the most aggressive federal intervention that America has seen on guns since 1968. Clinton used his presidential muscle for an important issue. The federal assault-weapons ban was proof that strong leadership, combined with grassroots pressure, can offer a counterweight to the power of the NRA. President Clinton’s strong support for these two measures was pivotal to success on Capitol Hill.

The positive news in 2018 is that there has been growing pressure from the public for Congress to do something about guns. Polls show that a majority of the country supports renewed restrictions on certain kinds of assault weapons. There are also more states, such as Connecticut, with a proven track record showing that regulations can work. A prominent Republican donor, Al Hoffman Jr., has even announced he will no longer donate money to candidates who oppose a ban on military-firearms.

Under pressure, Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said the president was open to an improved federal background check system for gun purchases. Whether Shah’s statement is an accurate reflection of presidential intentions remains to be seen. Until now, President Trump, who in February 2017 revoked an Obama-era regulation enforcing restrictions on gun sales to people who had a mental illness, has stood on the side of gun owners. It is unclear whether he will move forward with this proposal, do anything bolder, or if these words can be taken seriously.

Given the fact that presidential leadership on this issue remains uncertain and the Republican Congress has little appetite for reform, the only possible path forward will depend on grassroots activism. If the students who rallied are able to mobilize and organize to build pressure on candidates in 2018, their efforts could work. They should remember that back in 1964, the civil-rights movement created unbearable pressure that overwhelmed the status quo and resulted in the election of candidates who supported civil rights. The same can happen with guns. It will require a political mobilization of enormous magnitude to overcome the entrenched power of the NRA, the Republican Party, and a president who has shown no interest in taking bold action on this issue.