In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., the country is poised to revisit the gun control debate. Photo by Paul J. Richardson/AFP/Getty Images
Dianne Feinstein had just been elected president of the San Francisco board of supervisors in 1978 when the city’s mayor George Moscone and newly elected, openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in city hall.
Feinstein, a Democrat who had unsuccessfully campaigned twice for mayor, would serve out the remainder of Moscone’s term, then get re-elected to a second term on the uphill climb in her career in public service.
Fifteen years and a number of mass shootings later, the country was plagued with gun violence. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had been struggling to pass legislation aimed at reducing rising levels of violent crime.
Joe Biden, then a Senator representing Delaware, in 1993 reintroduced a crime bill featuring a range of solutions aimed at prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation.
Just as the legislation was getting some traction on the Hill, Feinstein, who by this point was California’s Senator, introduced an amendment to that bill that almost derailed the six-year effort.
Feinstein’s amendment, which has come to be known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, outlawed the manufacture of 19 specific semi-automatic firearms and ammunition clips that could hold more than 10 rounds. These were devices on which the user could stabilize, conceal or enhance the weapon’s fire power by attaching additional devices, such as a magazine, a telescope, a mechanism to suppress gun flash or launch a grenade.
“There is no reason for weapons of war… to be used freely on the streets of America where they are weapons of choice for every assassin, terrorist, gang member, drug syndicate, drive-by shooter, Mafioso, or grievance killer,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor in November 1993.
“The most troubling of these categories is the grievance killer, someone who takes out their wrath on anyone who happens to be around — children in a school yard or a swimming pool or walking down a street… It is time to stop the sale, the manufacture, and the possession of more semiautomatic assault weapons on the streets of America.”
Feinstein says that she has been working for the past year to draft new legislation to reinstate the ban and plans to introduce a bill at the start of the 113th legislative session, which convenes in January. On the NewsHour Monday night, she said she knows it is an “uphill” fight given the Republican-controlled House.
The new measure “will be carefully focused on the most dangerous guns that have killed so many people over the years while protecting the rights of gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons that fall outside the bill’s scope. We must take these dangerous weapons of war off our streets,” Feinstein said in a statement Monday.
On the show she detailed ways the measure would grandfather in exemptions for hunting weapons. The legislation would ban about 100 weapons by type and others by physical characteristics.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, in 1994, assault weapons were eight times more likely to be traced to crime than conventional firearms. But Feinstein’s amendment was a risky move.
Despite the other costly and controversial provisions of the crime bill, such as a proposal to spend more than $9 billion to hire more police officers, another $9 billion to build new prisons and a proposal to expand the federal death penalty to cover over 50 new offenses, including, drive-by shootings, the language banning assault weapons garnered the most debate during the final weeks of congressional hearings on the legislation.
“We have one more hurdle to go to get this crime bill passed,” Biden said in August 1994 during one of the final debates on the legislation. “And now we will get down to the single item that has made the difference all along for the last six years: guns. The issue will be assault weapons or no assault weapons. I hope no one has any misunderstanding about that. We are ready to go ahead and debate.”
But the measure prevailed.
The Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act, survived the Senate conference committee on a vote of 61 to 38, with the caveat that it would sunset in a decade. President Bill Clinton signed it into law on Sept. 13, 1994.
But when it expired in 2004, Republican Congressional leaders declined to reauthorize the bill or bring it to the floor for debate, saying there weren’t enough votes for its passage.
Through the years there have been many attempts to reintroduce the provision limiting the manufacture and sale of assault weapons, but they have failed to gain any traction.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who represents New York’s 4th Congressional district, introduced during the 109th and 110th legislative sessions, bills to reinstate the ban, adding a provision that outlawed the sale of kits to modify legal weapons into assault weapons along with enhancing the tracing of assault weapons. The bills were referred to House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, but never received a hearing.
According to a 2004 report by the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, the 10-year ban reduced the share of crimes involving assault weapons but the report also said that its effects on gun violence “are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says that during the 10-year period that the law remained in place it made a difference.
Five years before the ban became law, semi-automatic the weapons that were outlawed constituted 4.82 percent of the crime gun traces that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ATF conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, the weapons made up 1.61 percent of the guns the bureau has traced to crime, according to its 2004 report.