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.