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A History of Violence (And the Congressional Response)
Congress approved no major changes to gun laws after Columbine.
Congress approved no major changes to gun laws after Virginia Tech.
Congress approved no major changes to gun laws after a bullet cleaved the skull of one of its own, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) last January. The same melee wounded Giffords’ successor, Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ). Aide Gabe Zimmerman wasn’t as fortunate.
And so after a peal of gunfire ravaged a movie house in Aurora, CO early Friday morning, Congress responded much the same way it did after Columbine, Virginia Tech and the attack on Giffords. Not with legislation. But lawmakers offered a flood of prayers for the loved ones of the victims who were assassinated just because they wanted to watch a movie.
This is a familiar pattern on Capitol Hill. A big shoot-em-up lays low a crowd of people. And lawmakers send their condolences.
There were shooting rampages in the mid-1980s and ‘90s. James Huberty burst into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, CA in July, 1984. He fired 192 armor-piercing bullets during a 77-minute shooting spree, killing 21 people and injuring 19 others.
In 1985, the House of Representatives cited Huberty’s attack when it voted to ban access to “cop-killer” bullets which can pierce armor.
But the tide began to turn in 1991. The House wrestled with a massive crime bill in October, 1991, just days after George Hennard rammed his Ford Ranger pickup through the glass window of a Luby’s Cafeteria. Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 20 with a Glock 17 pistol and Ruger P89. Some lawmakers tried to prohibit 13 types of assault-type weapons and 17-round ammunition magazines, similar to the one used by Hennard.
“We’re led to believe that we need an assault weapon to go out and kill Bambi,” said then-Rep. Butler Derrick (D-SC).
But the House rejected those efforts with the help of the late-Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-MO), an NRA board member. Volkmer decried the provision as “the most far-reaching restriction on gun owners…that’s ever been considered by Congress.”
But everything really changed in the summer of 1994.
Democrats controlled both the House and Senate back then. Congressional Democrats failed to approve President Clinton’s health care reform package that year. So they needed something to brag about in the fall campaign. The U.S. was a violent place in the early 1990’s. So Democrats concocted a $33.2 billion crime bill designed to flood the streets with 100,000 new police officers, distract thugs with “midnight basketball” at community centers and ban assault-style weapons.
Democrats tried to bring the bill to the House floor in early August. In the House, nearly every piece of legislation needs what’s called a “rule.” For each bill, the House crafts a new “rule” to determine how lawmakers will handle the package on the floor. The rule sets time limits for debate and dictates if lawmakers may offer amendments. In short, the House must first approve a rule before it can debate a bill. And if it can’t okay the rule, everything’s stuck.
A coalition of Republicans and gun control opponents teamed to defeat the rule, thus barricading the crime bill from the House floor.
“They have failed the American people,” lamented President Clinton.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) saw it differently. It described the failed “rule” vote as a “step ahead for real safety and genuine security.”
The crime bill languished. Until later that month. The House resurrected the measure. And then the Senate struggled to approve the crime package, authored by the then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman (and current Vice President) Joe Biden (D-DE).
Biden knew that one provision in the legislation threatened its very survival.
“Guns, guns, guns,” thundered Biden. “(This is the) single-most contentious issue that relates to the criminal justice system in the 22 years I have been here.”
Biden prowled the Senate chamber like a cat as he tried to navigate the crime package to passage.
“This is about guns! Guns!” Biden shouted.
Like a school kid on the playground, Biden morphed his thumb and index finger into an imaginary six-shooter. He then fired off a “shot” from his digit.
“Bang! Bang!. Shoot ‘em dead. Guns. For six years, we had no crime bill because of guns!” Biden hollered.
Congress finally passed the bill. The assault weapons prohibition went into effect a few weeks later. The NRA argued the bill violated the Second Amendment and took the issue to the people.
The NRA canvassed the gun shops and shooting clubs across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with flyers and bumper stickers, backing then-Rep. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in his bid to unseat Sen. Harris Wofford (D-PA). The NRA bankrolled billboards in Oklahoma, accusing Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-OK) of being a “Clinton Clone” in his race for Senate.
McCurdy had been a favorite of the NRA before.
Until he voted to outlaw assault weapons in the crime bill.
Both Santorum and then-Rep. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) emerged victorious. The NRA shepherded assistance to Republican Spencer Abraham who defeated Rep. Bob Carr (D-MI) in a Senate bid. Those victories helped to flip the Senate to Republican rule for the first time in eight years.
And then there was the House of Representatives.
Legendary actor Charlton Heston surfaced in NRA-backed ads directed at then-House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA). Heston intimated that “the Speaker has stopped listening.”
Foley became the first sitting Speaker of the House to lose in 132 years as Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in four decades. All told, the NRA spent $1.7 million (back when $1.7 was a lot of money) on 24 races. NRA-supported candidates captured 19 of those contests. One could trace much of the NRA’s ire back to the effort to outlaw assault weapons.
“Election day 1994 was an example of the grassroots strength and honest gun owners who want their lawmakers to get tough on criminals while preserving basic civil rights like the right to keep and bear arms,” said the NRA’s Tanya Metaska.
An effort to repeal the assault weapons ban erupted into mayhem in the House chamber in March, 1996.
One of the most-impassioned speeches opposed to the repeal came from then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), son to the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and nephew to JFK and RFK. Kennedy was just 29 years-old and the youngest member of the House at the time. The Rhode Island Democrat’s voice cracked and his hands trembled as Kennedy glared at the Republicans.
“Families like mine all across this country know all too well what damage weapons can do and you want to arm our people even more! You want to add more magazines to the assault weapons so they can spray and kill even more people! Shame on you! What in the world are you thinking when you are opening up the debate on this issue?” Kennedy screamed.
The late Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-NY) could not let Kennedy’s attack stand.
“When he stands up and questions the integrity of those of us that have this bill on the floor, the gentleman ought to be a little more careful! And let me tell you why!” growled Solomon, his jowls contorting into a Patton-like scowl.
“Tell me why!” implored Kennedy from the well of the House.
“My wife lives alone five days a week in a rural area in upstate New York!” bellowed Solomon. “She has a right to defend herself when I’m not there, son! And don’t you ever forget it!”
The House voted that day to eliminate the assault weapons ban. But Congress never fully repealed it. It expired unceremoniously a decade later.
On Monday, neither body of Congress had met since the shooting in Aurora, CO Friday.
And when the Senate convened at 2 pm, lawmakers went through the familiar motions which follow such tragedies – whether it be Columbine, Virginia Tech or the attack on one of Congress’s own: former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).
“My heart goes out to his loved ones and to all the victims and their families as they struggle to make sense of the senseless,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid noted the death of Jonathan Blunk who was a Navy veteran from Reno. He then called for a moment of silence to remember the dead.
A moment later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) slowly recited the names of the fallen. He characterized shooting suspect James Holmes as “this monster” and said there are some things which just can’t be explained, evil being one of them.
When the House met Monday afternoon, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was one of the few lawmakers to speak out about the massacre.
“What is appalling as the loss of life is the fact that we not only refuse to do anything about it, but we allow political bullies to intimidate us from even researching the facts,” blasted Blumenauer.
During a conclave with reporters, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) took a wait-and-see approach when asked about tightening up laws and weapons.
“Policy is always better when you study and shoot for a political answer,” McCarthy said. “I would like to focus on the families first. But I would like to have all the facts before we move legislation.”
It’s talk like that which galls Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). On the day of the shooting, Grijalva published a statement saying that “we owe it not only to the dead and wounded but to our national community to have a conversation about violence and weapons that is respectful, honest and productive. That conversation should neither start too soon nor be postponed indefinitely.”
But in an interview Monday, Grijalva predicted it was a challenge to initiate that dialogue.
“It makes it tough to have the conversation because of the fear factor,” Grijalva admitted. “The threat of the wrath of the NRA is significant and in some instances, overwhelming.”
In his opening prayer of the Senate session Monday, Senate Chaplain Barry Black asked God to embrace the families affected by the Aurora tragedy. But before he outright invoked the shootings, Black first asked God to guide lawmakers.
“Show them what needs to be changed and give them the courage and wisdom to make the changes,” prayed Black in his resonant, bass timbre from the Senate dais.
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Gabrielle Giffords. Congress did little legislatively after each of those tragedies. That’s been the case since 1994. Which means it’s unlikely much will happen after Aurora, too.