January 2, 2013
How to Get a New Assault-Weapons Ban Through Congress
By ADAM EISGRAU
CALLING the massacre in Newtown, Conn., “the worst day of my presidency,” President Obama recently told NBC’s David Gregory: “My response is, something has to work. And it is not enough for us to say, ‘This is too hard, so we’re not going to try.’ ”
Almost 20 years ago, Senator Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers took the same approach to build a bipartisan majority in Congress, tortuously, vote by vote, for legislation banning the future manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
As Senator Feinstein’s counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993, I worked with her to get the assault weapons bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk. But the legislation expired in 2004 and hasn’t been renewed. Understanding what worked then is the key to doing it again in the new Congress, as Senator Feinstein has vowed to do.
Then, as now, legislation was the product of spectacular violence. On July 1, 1993, a man carrying two semiautomatic pistols equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines and “hellfire” triggers, and another pistol, strolled off an elevator in a San Francisco building. He entered the offices of a law firm and killed eight people and injured six others before taking his own life. In the wake of that horror, Senator Feinstein asked me to review earlier bills by two other Democratic senators at the time, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, and blend them with her own proposals to create meaningful new legislation that could pass Congress.
The law that resulted is best known for regulating certain semiautomatic weapons and large ammunition magazines, but it’s worth remembering that its official name was the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act.
That title wasn’t a euphemism: the law needed support from lawmakers who had viewed prior legislative efforts as toothless, as well as those who feared that a ban on assault weapons could lead to the confiscation of guns used for hunting and target shooting.
The bill had three main components. The first was a list of well-known, deeply feared guns that were banned by name (like Uzis). The second banned the future manufacture and sale of any new semiautomatic weapon with a detachable magazine and more than two of several assault-style features (like a forward handgrip). The third and most critical section was Appendix A, which listed every single hunting rifle and shotgun in use at the time — there were hundreds — that didn’t run afoul of the features test in the second component. Those firearms were unequivocally exempted from the bill.
At the time, gun-control advocates resisted the incorporation of Appendix A. But the idea behind it was and remains crucial to making any meaningful changes in America’s gun laws. They must gain the support of gun owners, most of whom are heartsick over senseless carnage.
By explicitly protecting hundreds of popular sporting guns, the bill enabled senators and representatives to push back against the tide of protests — many of them generated by the National Rifle Association — at town hall-style meetings in their states and districts. They could show their constituents that their ordinary hunting rifles and shotguns were protected in Appendix A or that their guns could be added to it, if need be. Proponents of the legislation distributed blue booklets describing all three parts of the bill, including pictures of the assault weapons banned by name and the full list of guns protected by Appendix A.
The nation’s principal law enforcement organizations, whose leaders testified and lobbied aggressively for the bill, also made great use of the booklets and Appendix A. In fact, it was a survey showing overwhelming support for an assault-weapons ban from police chiefs in and around his Congressional district that persuaded Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee at the time, to support the bill. His surprise yes vote offset the no vote of the committee’s conservative chairman, Representative Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat, so that the bill could move to the floor of the House.
The existence of Appendix A also made it possible for Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Democrat and longtime N.R.A. member — coupled with his own reaction to a torrent of gun-lobby phone calls — to commit to supporting Senator Feinstein’s bill if it was essential. That moment came when a motion to table, or effectively kill, the bill came before the Senate. Although the motion would have failed with a tie vote of 50 to 50, Senator Feinstein asked Senator Campbell for his vote to show that a majority of senators supported the bill. He honored his commitment, and the motion to table failed, 49 to 51, paving the way for the ultimate passage of the bill by a vote of 57 to 43.
Following the Newtown tragedy, inaction is not an option, morally or politically. President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (who championed the original assault-weapons ban when he served in the Senate) are on the right track with their plan to present legislation before the new Congress.
Preventing another slaughter will require not just new gun regulations, but also education, mental health care, greater access by law enforcement agencies to mental health records and assistance for parents, while respecting the whole Bill of Rights.
But the lesson from nearly two decades ago remains clear. If any meaningful change is to come, legislators must again devise a bill that both regulates assault weapons and respects and protects gun owners.
If we want to reimpose a permanent assault-weapons ban and restrict high capacity ammunition magazines, let’s include a new list of exempted rifles and shotguns used for recreational shooting in a new Appendix A (updated annually) and actively solicit input from the shooting community to make it work.
If we want to require background checks for all private sales at gun shows, let’s cap the cost so that private sales aren’t prohibitively expensive. Better yet, when we do this, let’s find an efficient way to allow individual sellers to directly use the same F.B.I.-managed background check system they must now pay federally licensed gun dealers to access for them.
If, once and for all, we want to revoke the de facto exemption from consumer product safety regulation that, thanks to the N.R.A., guns have historically enjoyed, let’s bring them under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and require gun makers to build state-of-the-art gunlock technology (like palm- or fingerprint-recognition sensors) into every handgun or rifle. But then let’s also relieve gun owners of the burden of identifying and complying with a patchwork of different state laws covering the transport of firearms and permit, under federal law, the transport of any lawfully owned gun across state lines if it’s unloaded and locked in the trunk of a car, in a childproof case.
Finally, if only because it’s the fair thing to do, let’s require states and localities to process gun registration and other applications by law-abiding gun owners within a reasonable period of time, and with firm deadlines.
We need comprehensive proposals that can gain wide support. As always, the resulting legislation won’t be perfect. For example, just as in 1993, it’s unlikely that a new bill would address assault weapons that people already lawfully own — like the one Adam Lanza took from his mother before he killed her, 20 first graders, six educators and himself. We’ll have to address that problem with publicly and privately sponsored buyback programs and other approaches. But once enacted, a comprehensive bill would, over time, make “grandfathered” weapons and ammunition magazines more expensive, harder to find and harder to repair. If such a compromise kept the wrong gun out of the wrong hands just once, I’d take it, any day.
Adam Eisgrau, a lobbyist and communications consultant, was Senator Dianne Feinstein’s counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1993 to 1995 and worked for the Brady Campaign, a gun-control organization, after the Columbine shooting in 1999.