My father voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban — Congress should do so again

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Semiautomatic rifles are displayed for sale in this Jan. 1, 2019, file photo.

The year I turned 11, in 1994, my father ran for re-election as the U.S. representative for New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District. This same year, he voted for a federal assault weapons ban, which changed the federal criminal code “to prohibit the manufacture, transfer, or possession of a semiautomatic assault weapon,” i.e., civilian versions of military-grade automatic weapons.

As a congressman from New Hampshire — famously and proudly the “Live free or die” state — my dad, Richard Swett, did not originally intend to vote for this legislation. He believed it could have an impact on America’s gun violence problem, but he also knew that a majority of his constituents opposed it. I learned in later years that he wrestled mightily with the decision of how to cast his vote. In the end, the dictates of his conscience, and a letter from former President Reagan, himself a victim of gun violence, convinced my father that he had only one choice: to vote in favor of the ban. It passed the House narrowly, with my dad casting one of the deciding votes.

The fallout in New Hampshire was ugly. Dad began receiving death threats. He started to campaign with a bulletproof jacket under his dress shirt. At his campaign kick-off speech, angry men in the crowd heckled him and screamed that he was a liar. In the picture that ran in the newspapers the following day, you can see 11-year-old me wiping away tears. Some weeks later, I was in Concord with friends when a large, menacing man started following us. When we stopped at a crosswalk, he came up to me and asked, “Are you Swett’s kid?” I answered that I was, to which he replied, “Too bad for you.”

I wish Dad had been rewarded for taking a principled stand and attempting to use his power in Congress to do something — anything — to fight the disease of gun violence in our country. Instead, he was voted out of office that November, and that was the last time he held public office. But in the nearly three decades since that vote, I never once have heard him say he regrets it. I think he feels it was a decent trade: He lost his congressional seat but kept his humanity and integrity.

Congress was spurred to act in 1994 by a series of shootings over the course of several years. The spate of shootings over the past few weeks — in Buffalo, N.Y., Laguna Woods, Calif., Uvalde, Texas and other places that haven’t registered in the national media — are shocking yet wholly unsurprising. This, of course, is the most shocking thing of all: that such acts of barbarism and inhumanity have become so commonplace. The FBI recently reported that from 2017 to 2021, there was a 96.8 percent increase in the number of active-shooter incidents in America. A total of 103 people died from such incidents in 2021, a 171 percent increase over the previous year.

The recent tragedies are not unique events in America. What makes them different for me, personally, is the fact that Uvalde marked the first mass school shooting to occur since my family returned to the United States after nearly a decade of living in Denmark and Australia — countries that allow citizens to own firearms but regulate them more like cars and drivers. In other words, their laws strive to ensure that only responsible citizens with proper training have access to guns. Their systems aren’t perfect, but in my years living abroad there were no school shootings in either Australia or Denmark.

Now, for the first time, I have no choice but to talk to my children about gun violence in schools. I have no choice but to watch them face the shameful reality that poet Amanda Gorman put into words so aptly: “It takes a monster to kill children. But to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity — it’s inhumanity. The truth is, one nation under guns.”

The truth also is, however, that we don’t have to accept this reality as the unchangeable status quo. The power to govern is given to those who promise in taking their oaths to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.” I hope we can all agree that faithfully discharging their duties does not, and cannot, mean doing whatever it takes to remain in power. 

Almost 30 years ago, my father and his colleagues in Congress decided to use their power to pass meaningful gun control legislation. In this day and age, when firearms have become the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in America, there is no member of Congress who can rightfully claim to be fulfilling their duties faithfully if they stand in the way of commonsense gun control. And no citizen can say they are doing their part unless they are willing to hold their elected officials accountable.

Today, I am calling my senators and representatives to thank them for their support of H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. I am going to tell them to keep fighting to see this piece of legislation and others like it passed — and to answer President Biden’s recent call to renew the assault weapons ban. I hope many of my fellow citizens will do the same. More importantly, I hope they will use the power of their vote this year to elect individuals to state and federal offices who will try to make progress — any progress — toward undoing the damage inherent in the phrase “one nation under guns.”

And to the elected officials who fear for their political careers if they go against the powerful gun lobby or stand up to constituents who have chosen to support gun rights over the lives of their fellow citizens, I hope you find a shred of the courage and decency that my father and his congressional colleagues once showed when they faced the choice of whether to take action.

Chelsea Hedquist is director of public affairs and advocacy for the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice. Follow her on Twitter @chedquist.

Tags assault weapons ban Firearms Mass shootings school shootings

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