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Spin Control: Why does Congress struggle with passing an assault-weapons ban? Answer may be 1994 election

Speaker of the House Tom Foley shoots a 45/70 buffalo gun at the Spokane Valley Rifle and Pistol Range Wednesday, Oct. 19, 1994. Foley met with club members in an attempt to counter an anti-Foley National Rifle Association ad campaign in Eastern Washington.  (SANDRA BANCROFT-BILLINGS/The Spokesman-Review)

As a consumer of arguably too much news in print and on various screens, it is a rare day when I’m not confronted by some pundit or talking head who can’t understand why Congress won’t pass a ban on assault weapons when the polls say the vast majority of Americans support one.

The answer is quite simple: Politicians may forget their campaign promises as quickly as they are elected, but they remember forever things that cost other politicians their jobs.

A ban on assault weapons is pretty close to the top of that list, possibly only behind a suggestion that Social Security should have their benefits drastically reduced.

Or at least that’s what they took away from the 1994 election, the last time Congress passed a ban on the sale of assault weapons and a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines – something else pollsters suggest would be well received.

Like 2022, 1994 was a mid-term election year for a new Democratic president whose party controlled both chambers of Congress. President Clinton had a much bigger majority to work with in Congress, but resistance to an assault weapon ban was bipartisan, as was its support. A standalone ban failed the House early in that year, but supporters had hope of bringing it again before the election, something talking heads have suggested after current failures.

The bans were suggested as additions to the massive Crime Control and Prevention Act, which had other things popular at the time, including federal money for tens of thousands more police officers, longer sentences for violent criminals and more protections for women facing domestic violence.

Unlike 2022, the number of mass shootings was nowhere near averaging one a day in 1994. Some of the most notorious ones like Columbine, the Pulse night Club in Orlando, the Vegas strip, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary and Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High were years or even decades off.

But there was one mass shooting that year that had a profound impact on the fate of the bill and had many of the same elements as today’s massacres. It happened in Spokane County.

Dean Mellberg, a 20-year-old former airman who had been forcibly discharged from the military after showing signs of mental instability, bought a semiautomatic military-style rifle known as a MAK-90, and separately purchased a 75-round drum magazine. He returned to Fairchild Air Force Base, where he believed his problems with Air Force mental health doctors began. In a rampage through the hospital and a medical office, he killed four people and wounded 22 others including a pregnant woman who subsequently lost her unborn child. He was eventually shot dead by an Air Force police officer, Andy Brown, who rushed to the scene.

At the time, such shootings were rare enough that The Spokesman-Review newsroom got calls from as far away as the BBC in London, asking for details.

In the wake of that massacre, the local congressman – who also happened to be the speaker of the House – said he would support the pending ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.

Rep. Tom Foley was finishing his 30th year in Congress and had received support from the National Rifle Association for most of his career. This puzzled some East Coast journalists who questioned why he accepted contributions from the NRA.

Foley would explain patiently to them it wasn’t the contributions that were important, but the endorsement that came with them. Many in Congress, he said, would gladly pay the NRA for an endorsement, which came with bumper stickers the association sent out proclaiming members’ support for the candidate.

After he supported the assault weapon ban, that endorsement was revoked and Foley’s picture would be featured in the center of a bull’s eye on posters around the Eastern Washington district. He drew four Republican challengers, each of whom competed for the NRA’s endorsement. Asked about the ban at a GOP debate, one said a person should be able to own any type of weapon they want, another said he’d draw the line at bazookas.

“I draw the line way high on the Second Amendment, and nuclear weapons are it,” said George Nethercutt. Although he later said the answer was tongue-in-cheek, he would go on to win the primary, get the endorsement of the NRA and have actor Charlton Heston campaign for him.

Foley brought up Nethercutt’s answer at several debates and staged gun-friendly campaign events including one where he shot an antique buffalo rifle. Family members of some of Mellberg’s victims campaigned for him.

Despite his public support for the ban, Foley warned Clinton privately it would cost Democrats seats in Congress. At a memorial service in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 2013, Clinton recalled Foley telling him that by the time the president sought re-election in 1996, people would realize the ban didn’t mean the federal government would be coming for their guns but in that year’s mid-term “there will be blood on the floor. Many of us will not survive.”

“I thought he was wrong, but he was right,” Clinton said. “I’d be a wealthy man if I had a dollar for every time in the last 20 years I have found my mind drawn to that conversation.”

About a month after the Crime Bill passed, a statewide poll of likely Washington voters showed 72% approved of the assault weapons bill, compared to only 55% who approved of the entire bill and only 41% who thought the ban would be effective in fighting crime.

In Foley’s district, two-thirds said they approved of the ban. Only in Central Washington’s 4th District was support below 50%.

But on Election Day, Foley lost to Nethercutt and three other Washington Democrats in House – Jay Inslee, Maria Cantwell and Mike Kreidler – lost their races and the seat occupied by Democrat Al Swift, who voted for the ban but was retiring, was filled by a Republican who criticized the ban. Only Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott, in the state’s deepest blue Democratic strongholds, voted yes and survived.

Despite how popular the poll suggested the ban was in Western Washington, Jennifer Dunn, a Republican who voted against the bill, was easily re-elected.

To say the entire Democratic bloodbath was solely the result of the assault weapons ban would be a gross oversimplification. Democrats Jolene Unsoeld, of Olympia, and Larry LaRocco of Idaho, voted against it and lost their seats, anyway.

Democrats punted on the major campaign issue of health care reform, were slow to react to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and faced a rise of throw-them-out populism around the country. Plus it was a mid-term election which almost always costs the party in power some seats.

But the lesson many Democrats and Republicans seemed to learn from 1994 was that the NRA was not to be crossed. When the assault weapon and large capacity magazine bans expired in 2004, they weren’t renewed.

The NRA might not be as powerful as it was in 1994. But the Democrats have a much slimmer majority in Congress for this mid-term and have so far failed to deliver on some big campaign promises. Republicans don’t have a unified strategy like Gingrich’s contract but they do have Donald Trump who may or may not be a force to bring Republicans to the polls.

One difference between 2022 and 1994 would be hard to detect in polling. For years, gun-rights advocates have been like abortion opponents, voting only for a candidate who agrees with them or energized against one who doesn’t. Those on the other side of either issue aren’t usually so single-minded, although they do muster majorities when those are ballot initiatives.

The growing number of mass shootings around the country could cause supporters of greater gun control to base their vote for candidates on that issue. But politicians who are usually risk-averse may be unwilling to take that chance.

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