As President Barack Obama set up a task force to recommend ways to prevent tragedies like the mass murders in Newtown, Conn., a progressive group in Washington joined the call Wednesday for a new ban on assault weapons.
But anyone expecting quick, decisive action from Congress should realize the reluctance to discuss, let alone vote on, such a proposal is rooted in the last time one was passed and the election that followed.
Anyone who doesn’t believe a member of Congress could pay a price for supporting a ban wasn’t in Washington state in 1994, when all eight Democrats in the House voted for the ban, and six lost their jobs.
Among them was arguably the most powerful congressman of the time, House Speaker Tom Foley, who in short order went from 30 years of supporting and being supported by the National Rifle Association to being on the powerful lobbying organization’s target list.
After Newtown, Aurora, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., 2013 is different than 1994, said Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse, an umbrella group for progressive organizations. Voting for a ban “will be appreciated. It will not be a liability” in the next election, he said.
Just how different is open for debate.
In 1994, a mentally disturbed young man, described as socially awkward and a loner, possibly with a form of autism, acquired a semi-automatic rifle styled to resemble the military’s M-16. Dean Mellberg took that MAK-90 and a 75-round clip to what most would consider a safe place, the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital. There he killed five people and seriously wounded 21 before security police arrived and killed him.
The nation was stunned, and national media descended on Spokane. They were mostly gone four days later when Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall and Foley visited survivors at Deaconess Medical Center.
Widnall didn’t stick around for public comments, but Foley took questions outside the hospital about what could and should be done. One of the things, he said, was to pass the assault weapons ban working its way through Congress.
He had already angered the NRA by allowing the House to vote on a ban two months earlier. He repeatedly refused to say whether he supported it, insisting that to broker any compromises he had to be neutral. As speaker, he didn’t have to vote except to break a tie, and the ban passed 216 to 214.
With the community burying its dead and working to save seriously wounded victims, Foley said for the first time that if the vote had been tied, he would have voted yes. When the ban stalled in the Senate, a weakened version was attached to a crime bill that promised to put 100,000 police officers on the street.
When it came to the House, the crime bill passed comfortably, 235 to 195. Foley voted yes, as did Washington’s seven other House Democrats.
Back in Spokane, at one pre-primary campaign debate, Foley’s would-be Republican opponents competed with each other to see who could be the most pro-Second Amendment. In response to a question about what weapons might be banned, one said nothing short of nuclear weapons; another said nuclear weapons fired by bazookas.
Foley and five others lost re-election in November. Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. A sitting speaker was defeated for the first time since 1860. None of that was solely because of the assault weapon ban, but that was part of the equation.
Mike Kreidler, who represented south Puget Sound’s 9th District at the time, said the ban combined with NAFTA, the Republicans’ Contract with America, the Whitewater scandal and a budget that passed without a single GOP vote to hurt Democrats that year. The ban’s greatest impact, he believes, was in the intensity of the opponents.
“They became very active,” Kreidler, now the state insurance commissioner, said. At one campaign event, he recalled, an opponent of the ban shouted, “If I had a gun right now, I’d shoot you.”
Lobbying from both sides was intense, said Larry LaRocco, a Democrat whose district included the Idaho Panhandle. President Bill Clinton called, asking him to change his vote, promising support from police organizations. LaRocco said he liked much of the crime bill, but the ban “was not in sync with my district.” He voted no.
The NRA dropped its support of him anyway. Television commercials blanketed the district featuring a photo of Clinton, who wasn’t popular in Idaho, morphing into LaRocco. He lost to Republican Helen Chenoweth. The assault weapons ban didn’t cost him his seat, LaRocco said, but it helped the NRA and other conservative groups like Concerned Women for America and Term Limits “nationalize” the midterm elections.
LaRocco recalls meeting with a group of union members on his way through Spokane to Coeur d’Alene that fall and asking them about his friend Foley’s prospects. “One of them said ‘That S.O.B.’ Something was going on, and it was guns. He was losing key constituent groups.”
The NRA backed George Nethercutt and at one point sent Charlton Heston to Spokane to campaign for him. Nethercutt won by about 4,000 votes.
Foley, who couldn’t be reached for this article, has long defended the ban as a reasonable compromise and an important bill. The ban expired in 2004. On Wednesday, Obama announced that members of his cabinet, led by Vice President Joe Biden, will look at new measures to prevent mass shootings, and that could include a new ban.
LaRocco said Foley knew the risks of supporting the ban but voted for it anyway. “He was saying, ‘I’ll vote for it and you can vote for it, too.’ That’s what leaders do.”
Leadership is something gun control advocates want from Congress in 2013. Fuse asked its members Wednesday to lobby for a ban on assault rifles, large-capacity clips and stricter background checks.
Ostrom, of Fuse, argued things have changed since 1994, which he said was an overall bad year for Democrats. While all mass shootings are horrific, the slaughter of first-graders may be so far beyond the pale that Congress will have to act.
LaRocco thinks that may be right. The NRA has continued to push the envelope on gun rights, and if it continues its opposition, it may “jump the shark,” he said.
The organization has been quiet since the Newtown massacre, but is scheduled to announce Friday a proposal for “meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.”
Kreidler is less optimistic any action will be taken. “The chances of the ban passing in the House of Representatives is zero to none,” he said. “But there may be enough momentum to start a dialogue.”