A Lot Has Changed Since Congress Passed the Assault Weapons Ban

Andrew D. Brosig, The Daily Sentinel/AP Photo

When Congress passed an assault-weapons banin 1994, things were different.

Vice President Joe Biden delivered gun-control recommendations to President Obama on Monday, and as the White House prepares to unveil them, the possibility of a new ban has found the spotlight.

After the spate of mass shootings in the last year, culminating in the elementary-school tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun-control advocates have pointed to the AR-15 used in Newtown, and to the large ammunition clips used in other shootings, and made the assault-weapons ban a focus of their post-Newtown push.

That 1994 measure banned the production of certain semi-automatic guns and the large ammunition clips that could make them deadlier. It expired in 2004, under a 10-year sunset clause written into the law, and faced criticism from gun-control backers for allowing too many loopholes. President Bush signaled willingness to sign an extension, but congressional Republicans never sent one to the floor, much less to his desk. Now, gun-control advocates are calling for the ban's return.

The anticipated difficulty of passing an assault weapons ban today, after Newtown, might lead them to wonder what's changed - why it passed in 1994, but hasn't returned.

But when President Bill Clinton signed the ban in 1994, the political landscape looked quite different, both for gun control and the culture in Washington, D.C.

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For one, Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, along with the White House. One-party rule opened up the legislative playbook, so to speak, giving Democrats the freedom to push major legislation. As every pundit with a pulse has noted, partisan gridlock has reached a crescendo in the Obama era; while things got bad during Clinton's stalemates with House Republicans, the assault weapons ban predated their rise to power.

On the other hand, 1994 was an election year - one in which Democrats lost. They passed the gun ban, then relinquished control of the House to Newt Gingrich.

But perhaps the largest difference was that Congress didn't bring up the assault weapons ban as its own bill. Clinton pushed the ban as part of a much broader crime bill - a signature domestic-policy measure for his first term, one that focused on crime in general, not just guns.

Clinton began his push in 1993, initially asking Congress to pass a "crime bill" by Christmas, then by Memorial Day 1994 - and despite the urgings of a first-term Democratic president, the Democratic Congress still didn't pass it until September 1994.

"This is the beginning of our efforts to restore the rule of law on our streets," Clinton said during a Rose Garden press conference in 1993.

The broad bill had its controversies, both gun-related and not-the "assault weapons ban" among them - and it drew opposition from the National Rifle Association. It included federal funding to hire more police and made more crimes punishable by death. It was not a pure gun-control bill, but one that addressed a different political imperative.

In the early 1990s, gun control was wrapped up in the general issue of crime, and Clinton had campaigned against George H.W. Bush on that issue.

"We cannot take our country back until we take our neighborhoods back," Clinton said in a July 1992 campaign speech, criticizing Bush for failing to restrict handguns as president. "I want to be tough on crime and good for civil rights. You can't have civil justice without order and safety."

Today, Biden's gun-control task force isn't working on "crime," per se. The shootings in Aurora, Newtown, and Tucson, Ariz., have been called many things, but "crime" is a word rarely heard. "Tragedy," "horror," and "massacre" fit more neatly.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence doesn't see a huge difference in the political moment. "I think the mass shootings certainly tend to bring gun violence to the top of the front page in the news broadcasts, but I think that the public response and the response of them administration and politicians is properly focused on the fact that 100,000 Americans are shot every year," said Jon Lowey, director of the group's Legal Action Project.

At the same time, President Obama and Democrats haven't talked about "taking our neighborhoods back." They have, however, talked about preventing mentally unstable people from obtaining high-powered weapons. In the early 1990s, the public appetite for gun control may have been motivated more strongly by inner-city crime rates, and by the threat of crime in general, and Clinton's 1994 bill addressed a broader issue of crime and security, marrying things like cop funding and tougher penalties to the sizable pillar of gun control.

Today, the White House's mission is much narrower: It's all about the guns.

This post has been updated. An earlier version suggested Biden had not yet delivered his recommendations to Obama.