By Alexander Bolton - 03/12/13 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of a federal assault weapons ban, says President Obama needs to take a more active role in pushing legislation to prohibit military-style weapons.
Feinstein says she wants Obama to match the effort former President Clinton made two decades ago to round up votes for the measure on Capitol Hill.
With Clinton’s help, Feinstein and her allies passed the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, which sunset 10 years later.
“The Clinton administration really was helpful in getting the votes and working the issue. There’s no question about that,” Feinstein said. “I would certainly welcome [Obama] taking a leaf out of Clinton’s book and really engaging. I think that would make a difference.
“He’s got a bully pulpit that none of us have,” she said.
Feinstein noted polls show strong public support for an assault weapons ban. She says it’s time for leaders in Washington to show some courage.
“Every single public poll has shown a dominant majority of Americans want the assault weapons ban. So it’s very difficult to understand the reluctance of people, and in a sense the lack of courage of people. Even gun owners recognize you don’t need these weapons,” she said.
A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed that 54 percent of registered voters nationwide support the assault weapons ban, while 41 percent oppose it.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to resume a markup of Feinstein’s bill this week.
Obama has largely stayed out of negotiations on Capitol Hill over gun legislation, keeping a low profile on the issue that ranks at the top of his second-term agenda and letting Vice President Biden take the lead as the public advocate for gun control.
White House officials told The Associated Press the president will become more vocal if gun violence legislation hits a wall in Congress.
Last month, Obama urged lawmakers to vote on gun control during his State of the Union address, and soon afterward delivered a speech in Chicago on gun violence.
But since then he has hardly mentioned the issue in public, according to the AP.
Former Rep. Chris Shays (Conn.), who was the Republican point person for the assault weapons ban in the House, said Clinton played a crucial role.
“He was very involved,” said Shays.
Shays remembers being invited to the Oval Office for a signing ceremony and appearing before a bank of cameras with Democratic leaders.
“The assault weapons ban really mattered to the president. I knew he really wanted it in the package,” he said of Clinton.
Shays, however, questioned whether Clinton would do so again if he were still president. He estimates that between 10 and 20 House Democrats lost their races in the 1994 midterm elections as a result of the assault weapons ban passing.
“There is no more eagerness on part of Democrats to pass this bill than there is on the part of Republicans,” said Shays. “Anyone west of the Mississippi is dealing with constituents who were given a gun at age four and it’s a way of life.”
Obama’s defenders argue that Clinton had to be cajoled into supporting the 1994 assault weapons ban.
The New York Times reported that Clinton’s advisers worried the gun ban could sink a comprehensive crime bill that put more police officers on the street.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), the lead proponent of the assault weapons ban in the House, said Obama is hanging back on the issue to minimize opposition from Republicans and Democrats representing rural, conservative-leaning states.
“If anything has the president’s name on it, there’s a full pushback. That’s why he puts Vice President Biden on it,” said McCarthy. “He was afraid if he got too far in front on it, especially in Washington, they would automatically dismiss it.”
Some of the toughest votes to win for the assault weapons ban belong to Democratic senators facing reelection next year in states carried by Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.
Many political pundits have dismissed the chances of passing an assault weapons ban through the Republican-controlled House, or even through the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has declined to throw his support behind the measure, and even helped kill an effort in 2009 to reinstate it.
“The polls all show the American people want something done. Unfortunately Congress sometimes doesn’t listen to the American people,” McCarthy said.
She hopes members of Obama’s inner circle, who have set up a new 501(c)(4) advocacy group to promote his agenda, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will put pressure on lawmakers to embrace the ban.
A House working group on guns meets several times a week to discuss strategy, she said.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), another outspoken advocate for gun control, says he will not be satisfied with Congress stopping at expanded background checks.
“I’m not going to give up on getting a vote on the federal assault weapons ban. This is the bite at the apple. People are content that we’ll get something done. I can’t be content with that,” he said.
Quigley said he was not aware of the president reaching out to House lawmakers to build support for the ban, but that he plans to check in with colleagues this week to find out the latest.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said that Obama has a broader gun-control agenda than Clinton did because he’s juggling multiple bills, including an expansion of background checks to cover private sales and a crackdown on the illegal trafficking of firearms.
Horwitz noted the president also issued a slew of executive orders to curb gun violence, including a directive to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.