What Stoneman Douglas activists can learn from Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban

What Stoneman Douglas activists can learn from Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban
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Nearly 25 years ago, President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE invited family members of several high profile murder victims to the White House. Fresh from the initial defeat of his omnibus crime bill in the House of Representatives, Clinton welcomed the families to the Rose Garden hoping that his empathy toward innocent victims — especially children — would sway public opinion in favor of an assault weapons ban found in the bill.

He had ignored the advice of Democrats like Speaker Tom Foley and powerful Texas Rep. Jack Brooks, who wanted to eliminate the gun control legislation because it was vigorously opposed by gun rights advocates like the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress. 

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Just 10 days after defeat of his bill, with concessions and cajoling, Clinton was able to pass the legislation, which included the original ban on assault weapons. Although the bill was limited in scope, many hoped its passage would mark the beginning of a new phase of gun control in the U.S. Ultimately, however, the ban was never expanded, and the law was not renewed after it expired in 2004.

 

In recent weeks, student activists from Stoneman Douglas High School have boldly called for changes in the nation’s gun laws. Like the victims’ family members from 1994, their stories of personal tragedy have resonated with Americans who would like to see stricter controls on the availability of automatic weapons, which have been used in multiple mass shootings. 

Lawmakers have stepped up to make vague promises to prevent such tragedies from happening, but increasingly legislators from conservative districts have been hesitant to recommend banning the offending assault weapons and have called for other measures, such as focusing on mental health issues and arming teachers.  

The popularity of the Stoneman Douglas students suggests that the country may be entering a period of renewed political action on gun control, but the fallout from the Clinton assault weapons ban provides a lesson that might dampen that enthusiasm. Let me outline what gun control activists are up against.

Following the passage of the crime bill, Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate. In the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans successfully tied Democratic candidates from more conservative districts to Clinton and his gun control efforts. For example, Brooks, a longtime protector of gun rights, was defeated by relative unknown Republican Steve StockmanStephen (Steve) Ernest StockmanFormer aide sentenced for helping ex-congressman in fraud scheme Former congressman sentenced to 10 years in prison for campaign finance scheme Rising expectations could change North Korea forever MORE, who attacked Brooks for supporting the crime bill. Foley also lost his seat, in part due to his support of the bill, becoming just the second Speaker of the House to lose re-election in U.S. history. 

The message was clear. Gun rights supporters vote for guns and if they sense any weakening on gun rights by an elected official, their past loyalties disappear. In his autobiography, Clinton admitted Democrats like Brooks and Foley paid a heavy price for supporting the assault weapons ban. 

With Stoneman Douglas and other recent shootings fueling debate, and with the 2018 midterm elections looming, 1994 provides lessons for both sides of the gun debate. Gun rights advocates must continue to make candidates fear the price of moderation on gun control, as they weather the public outcry for policy change. Presented with the threats of corporations’ abandoning their ties to the NRA and of President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE’s recent cryptic remarks on gun control, gun rights supporters have to insist that their candidates continue to subscribe to Second Amendment orthodoxy.

Gun control advocates have a more difficult path. The political momentum after each mass shooting has waned, and gun control has not spurred enough attention to create a movement around the issue. Victims of gun crime will have to continue to demand policy changes, even as the public turns its attention other issues. Activists must demand that candidates make gun control a crucial part of their political platforms and then turn out the vote for those who challenge the gun rights lobby. 

Also, voters will have to make gun rights supporters pay a heavy price and use the ballot box to punish those who do not support gun control measures. The recent spate of mass shootings could create a new movement for gun control and encourage politicians to brave the hazards of significant legislation on weapons ownership, but the example of Clinton’s assault weapons ban shows that gun control activists must contend with the political price faced by politicians attempting to limit Americans’ access to guns. 

Robert Francis Saxe is associate professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis.