There was a time in not too distant history when Congress was capable of responding to the horrors of America’s gun violence with something more than “thoughts and prayers.”
Twenty-five years ago, on Sept. 13, 1994, Washington responded to the scourge of gun violence in its time by passing and signing the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Protection Act — better known as the assault weapons ban. Spurred into action by a playground shooting that killed five children and injured 30 others in a flash-attack of 100 rounds of ammunition in just 60 seconds, the ban passed because of principled politicians willing to put the lives of Americans over the wishes of the gun lobby.
To the surprise of no one, the NRA fought tooth and nail against the assault weapons ban, promising to exact “retaliation” from any member of Congress who dared to support it. And weeks before a vote on the bill, the N.R.A.’s threats looked likely to derail the bill. But, just three days prior to the vote, long time NRA ally and conservative standard-bearer President Reagan, joined by Presidents Ford and Carter, urged House members to back the ban. Their display of bipartisanship and patriotism, joined with the support of 77 percent of Americans, helped carry the bill to a slim victory in the House of 216-214.
With the passage of the ban, it became unlawful to “manufacture, transfer, or possess” most semi-automatic weapons. This new law also prohibited the “transfer or possession” of large capacity ammunition magazines. In total, it outlawed 19 types of military-grade assault weapons, including AR-15s, AK-47s, Uzis and TEC 9s. And these restrictions had real results. While the ban remained federal law, assault weapon and high-capacity magazine use in crime dramatically decreased and mass-shooting related deaths fell by a staggering 70 percent.
But that progress would not last, nor was it perfect. To get the ban through Congress, the legislation also had to include grandfather and “sunset” clauses, allowing for the possession and transfer of weapons purchased prior to the ban and requiring Congress to reauthorize it after 10 years if it were to stay in effect. These compromises ensured the bill would become law but limited its full effectiveness and left it vulnerable to the whims of Republican inaction in Congress.
In spite of tangible results and unwavering public popularity, never falling below two-thirds support in the polls, the N.R.A. made repealing the ban and exacting a pound of flesh from dissenting members of Congress “its top legislative priority.” In the years leading up to the sunset date the gun lobby funneled millions of dollars into tight races where its money could be used to install candidates pledging categorical opposition to the ban. Their fierce opposition to a popular law that was already working to protect everyday Americans effectively muddied the debate and scuttled support for reauthorization. And so, on Sept. 13, 2004, a Republican-controlled Congress allowed the ban to lapse.
The results for America were an unmitigated disaster. Since 2004, the number of mass-shootings has ballooned by 183 percent and the number of deaths in mass-shootings rocketed up by 239 percent. In Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook and Sutherlands Springs, assault rifles and high capacity magazine were the horrific tools of choice in four of America’s five deadliest mass shootings. And just in the past few months alone, these weapons of war have brought unspeakable tragedy to El Paso, Dayton, and most recently Odessa. At this point, we have almost as many mass shootings annually as we have days in the year.
The nation cannot carry on like this. Twenty-five years after the assault weapons ban was signed into law and 15 years after it expired, the right course of action is painfully clear. But time and time again, we’ve seen so-called leaders in the Senate and White House put loyalty to the NRA before American lives. There are enormous stakes in the next election, across all areas of American life. But absolutely chief among them is bringing back a Congress and a president who will fight for lifesaving laws like the federal assault weapons ban. The time is now to act.
Robert Cotter is a Social Policy and Politics fellow at Third Way.
Nathan Kasai is the Senior Policy counsel for the Social Policy and Politics Program at Third Way.