How Congress Passed an Assault Weapons Ban in 1994

The 1994 election year crime bill presented a new opportunity to pursue a ban on select assault-style weapons, and the cause was taken up by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. At a party retreat, she encouraged Mr. Clinton to pursue the legislation as part of the crime bill.

That prospect was unsettling to powerful Democrats from the South and rural areas who were in no rush to anger their gun-owning constituents or the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby that promised to punish lawmakers who backed the ban. Representative Jack Brooks, the pro-gun Texas Democrat who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, led the effort to defeat the ban, and he scored a notable success in mid-August when he and nearly 60 other Democrats mutinied. They defeated the motion to bring the crime bill to the floor, sending the administration scrambling to rescue a major legislative initiative. The pro-gun lawmakers teamed up with liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus who opposed other elements of the crime bill.

Unable to win over many Democrats, Mr. Clinton and his team turned their attention to more moderate Republicans with suburban constituencies. The president worked through Representative Mike Castle, a former Republican governor of Delaware who had struck up a relationship with Mr. Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. Another key ally was Representative John Kasich, Republican of Ohio. Instead of being frozen out as usual, Republicans suddenly found themselves winning concessions from the president himself to toughen the crime bill and cut some spending. Some Republicans said the assault weapons ban only seemed like common sense to them.

“I know people on the Second Amendment side go nuts when you say this, but what is the purpose of an assault weapon?” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, who backed the crime bill. “I was surprised by the reaction.”

A key moment came when Representative Henry J. Hyde, a conservative icon from Illinois, backed the ban as well, giving the more moderate Republicans some cover on the right. On Aug. 21, 1994, a Sunday, the House passed the overall measure on a 235-to-194 vote, with 46 Republicans joining in and 64 Democrats opposed.

Repercussions followed quickly. Democrats, many of whom were subjects of multiple ethics controversies, were crushed in the November midterm elections, with the losses including Mr. Foley and Mr. Brooks, despite his efforts to keep the ban from passing.

Gun control became a subject the party avoided for years. The assault weapons ban, limited to 10 years as one of the concessions to secure its passage, was allowed to expire in 2004.

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