WASHINGTON — Twenty-five years ago, Democratic support for an assault weapons ban was a major reason the party lost control of the House. Now top Democrats want to revive the fight.
On both the presidential campaign trail and Capitol Hill, leading Democrats are either calling to reinstate the ban or are pressing for a new one. The 1994 ban barred Americans from buying certain military-style firearms and high-capacity magazines for a decade, until Republicans let it expire in 2004.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, an architect of the original ban, and his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have embraced it. In an opinion article published Monday in The New York Times, Biden vowed to make the 1994 law “even stronger,” adding, “We have to get these weapons of war off our streets.”
Two centrist Democrats who beat Republicans for House seats last year — Reps. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Jason Crow of Colorado — also spoke out Monday in favor of a ban, with an opinion article in USA Today. Both are military veterans, and Crow ran on an aggressive platform of combating gun violence.
Still, an assault weapons ban has virtually no chance of being signed into law before 2021. Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, strongly oppose it, as does President Donald Trump. Although nearly 200 House Democrats are backing legislation to reinstate the ban, that is not enough to pass even the Democrat-controlled House because voting on such a measure would be politically risky for vulnerable moderates.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shown little interest in putting the ban up to a vote, even after the mass shootings this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Her strategy — and the top priority of gun safety advocates — is to press Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, to take up a House-passed bill extending background checks to all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online.
But the push by prominent Democrats — including former President Bill Clinton, who signed the original ban into law and outlined his support for it last week in an essay in Time magazine — forces the issue into the 2020 campaign. And it demonstrates how much the politics of gun safety have changed over the past several years.
“Just a couple of years ago, when I first took on the gun violence issue, people were telling me not to take it on in a district like mine,” said Crow, whose district includes Aurora and part of Littleton. In 1999, 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, and in 2012, 12 were killed at a movie theater in Aurora. “I proved those people wrong because I not only took it on, I led on it nationally and I won on the issue.”
Polls show that a majority of Americans support an assault weapons ban, but the support is not bipartisan. A July poll by National Public Radio found that 57% of respondents were in favor of a ban on the sale of AR-15 and AK-pattern semi-automatic assault rifles. But while 83% of Democrats said they were in favor of the ban, only 29% of Republicans supported it.
“The public has supported the assault weapons ban, and they really support it when you remind them that we had it already and that these are weapons that the military uses,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “The intensity has always been on the anti-gun-control side. Now the intensity is shifting onto the other side and the refrain out of Dayton — which is exactly the refrain the public has — is, ‘Do something.’”
The 1994 law, which passed as part of a broader crime bill championed by Biden, then a senator, banned the sale of 19 specific weapons that have the features of guns used by the military, including semi-automatic rifles and certain types of shotguns and handguns. It also outlawed magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. But people who already had such weapons were allowed to keep them.
For years, the ban was considered politically toxic for Democrats. After Clinton signed it into law, Democrats were trounced in the midterm elections. They lost control of the House, which they had held for 40 years. Among the losers was Tom Foley, who drew the ire of the National Rifle Association when he came out in favor of the ban and was the first sitting House speaker to lose an election since 1862.
The outcome rattled Democrats, and their fears of the NRA only grew after Al Gore lost the presidential election to George W. Bush in 2000. Many Democrats, including Clinton, blamed the loss on Gore’s stance on gun control. Four years later, the assault weapons ban expired.
Now the politics are shifting. The NRA is weakened, bogged down by outside investigations into alleged financial wrongdoing. Democrats are far less likely to rely on rural voters than they were two decades ago. And support for gun control is strong in cities and suburbs, especially among women in suburban districts like the one Crow represents.
The NPR poll found that 89% of Americans supported background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online. And since the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Democrats and Republicans have embraced so-called red flag laws, which make it easier for the authorities to take guns from those deemed dangerous by a judge.
The assault weapons ban, though, remains contentious. The NRA and Republicans have vigorously opposed it, arguing that it is ineffective and infringes on the Second Amendment. Its backers know it will never pass the Republican Senate and instead are making the case for what Democrats would do if they were in charge.
In his opinion article, Biden cited a study by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine that found that mass-shooting fatalities were reduced in the United States during the decade the ban was in effect. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, found that mass shootings — typically defined as those in which four or more people are killed — are far more deadly when the gunman uses high-capacity magazines.
“There have been 255 mass shootings already in 2019, which is more than the number of days,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the chief sponsor of the bill in the House, said Monday afternoon. “I think people really understand the lethality of these weapons that were designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible. They were designed for combat. They don’t belong in our neighborhoods and our cities.”
Had an assault weapons ban been in place, Cicilline said, both the El Paso and Dayton gunmen would not have been able to buy their weapons. Still, some Democrats remain skittish about it.
“There’s still a lingering worry, but I think it’s dissipating a bit,” said Jim Kessler, the vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization. He added, “For probably two dozen House Democrats, it is a risky vote.”