A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School got their first, bitter taste of gun control politics on Tuesday afternoon as Florida state House Republicans slammed the door on a debate over legislation the young activists were poised to champion.
Some watched the bill, which would have banned many semiautomatic guns and large capacity magazines, rejected in person; others heard the news while still en route to Tallahassee. All must now have a more precise sense of what awaits them.
It has been nearly 25 years since Congress passed broad new firearm restrictions. Even then, the 1994 assault weapons ban, signed into law by President Bill Clinton with the support of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, was a temporary measure. President George W. Bush, the GOP in charge on Capitol Hill, allowed it to expire a decade later.
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Since then, efforts to win federal lawmakers’ support for new gun control legislation have routinely fallen flat. The partisan dance around the issue has become achingly familiar – a play in three parts:
- A mass shooting – in a school, in a church, at a concert, etc. – sets off a hot round of condemnations and calls to action by blue state Democrats.
- Republicans, in turn, scold their colleagues for “politicizing” the killings, while offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims.
- Then comes a brief round of bipartisan chatter over some minor, compromise measure, followed by a lull – as the lobbyists dig in and partisan imperatives take hold – and, eventually, nothing.
The cycle begins anew.
So why should this time, with another 17 killed, yield anything different?
In the hours and days after last week’s massacre in Parkland, the old chorus began to hum its tune. But just as politicians’ thoughts and prayers were giving way to the usual, dead-end debates, a new variable introduced itself: the teenagers. First in interviews with on-site news crews, then – more viscerally – at a gun control rally last weekend in nearby Fort Lauderdale, they began to speak up. New protests are springing up daily, including one, scheduled for March 24 in Washington, that’s expected to attract demonstrators from around the country.
History tells us with some confidence that there is no single, optimal set of circumstances for passing new gun legislation. But a review of the six major laws enacted between 1934 and 1994 offers some insight into what might drive legislators’ behavior.
A smaller, or less dogmatic, National Rifle Association
As Scott Melzer documented on his 2012 book, “Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War,” the NRA has worked to transform debates about gun control into a pitched new front in the culture wars, where even modest gun rights restrictions are viewed as an assault on an inalienable right. This has pit those seeking stricter controls against Second Amendment defenders in a new kind of battle – sharper, angrier and with less room for compromise. As a result, the stakes seem higher and policymaking takes a backseat to tribal conquest.
“The gun crusader’s mission is clear,” Melzer writes. “Defend gun rights, win the culture war, save America.”
But the NRA didn’t always exist in this absolutist form. The group’s Capitol Hill lobbying operation didn’t ramp up until the mid-1970s, more than a century after its founding. As the Brady Bill debates dragged on a little more than a decade later, NRA membership was approximately half of what it is now. And though it had a fraught relationship with the legislation Clinton ultimately signed, in 1993, the NRA played ball and supported a portion of the law that contained a precursor to today’s instant background check system – an unthinkable compromise in the current environment.
The rank-and-file grew during the Obama presidency, many fearing the liberal bogeyman would advance at any sign of weakness, after a decline during the Bush years. But in the Trump era, there are signs the NRA’s influence could be tested anew. To start, gun ownership rates are in a period of long-term decline. There are an estimated 300 million firearms in circulation today, but, according to recent surveys, only around a third of Americans own one or live in a household with someone who did. And despite the lack of action in Washington, politicians are increasingly willing to buck the organization – when they come under sustained public pressure.
Rising violent crime rates and high profile incidents
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed by police in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. That summer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the first of two pioneering federal gun control laws, the National Firearms Act. If “Bonnie and Clyde” were emblematic of the Prohibition era violence that grabbed headlines around the country in the early 1930s, making celebrities of gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger (who was killed by FBI agents on July 22, 1934), the NFA was the federal government striking back.
The NFA was a more modest bill than many in Roosevelt’s party were seeking. Rather than ban outright the machine guns and sawed-off shotguns so many still associate with the time, the new law placed onerous new taxes on the weapons and required they be registered with the government. It was expanded four years later to block violent criminals from making purchases and require interstate vendors obtain licenses and keep records of their sales.
Three decades later, “Bonnie and Clyde” looked more like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway than a threat to public safety. Rising violent crime and murder rates, coupled with TV images of urban riots and unrest, paved the way for President Lyndon Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968. Among its provisions were a new ban on the sale of firearms to felons, minors and the mentally ill. “Destructive devices” like bombs and grenades were put under federal jurisdiction for the first time.
Recent political violence
The push for the Gun Control Act began five years before it took effect, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald cost about $20 and was obtained via mail order. But the initial push to ban similar sales stalled out in committee. Then, in the spring of 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down two months apart.
By October, Johnson was signing a law, over the NRA’s measured objections, that placed a series of new regulations on the industry and purchases like the one made by Oswald.
FDR’s NFA also arrived in the aftermath of – though not as a direct response to – an attack on a political leader. In early 1933, Roosevelt, then the president-elect, narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullets during a trip to Miami. But it was the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr., who would later be found not guilty by reason of insanity, that planted the seeds for what would become, more than a decade later, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, signed by President Bill Clinton.
Named after Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, who was wounded and permanently disabled in the attack, the law first mandated a waiting period on certain purchases.
In a New York Times op-ed, Reagan, an NRA member, recalled the 1981 shooting as he made his case for the law.
“Four lives were changed forever, and all by a Saturday-night special – a cheaply made .22 caliber pistol – purchased in a Dallas pawnshop by a young man with a history of mental disturbance,” he wrote. “This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now – the Brady bill – had been law back in 1981.”
Reagan would also back the 1994 assault weapons ban.
In 1998, a mandate of the act, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – also known as NICS, was launched. It has come under new scrutiny following the Florida shootings.
Strong support from the White House
A president’s desire for new gun control measures is no guarantee he’ll get them, but without driving support from the White House, it’s truly a lost cause.
Reagan’s experience in 1981 did not immediately soften his position. The law he signed in 1986, called the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act, was designed to roll back restrictions from LBJ’s Gun Control Act. It was only a late add-on by New Jersey Rep. William Hughes, a Democrat, that changed its historic flavor. Hughes’ amendment banned civilians from owning fully automatic weapons made after the law took effect. The NRA didn’t push back, deciding it ultimately came out ahead.
Roosevelt, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton (with Reagan’s backing) all put political capital on the line to secure their desired legislation. Obama was willing to spend what remained of his, digging deep in the aftermath of the Newtown horror, but he couldn’t corral the votes.
Trump, with his fellow Republicans in control of the House and Senate along with would-be allies in the Democratic minority, now has an opportunity to make his own history.