In emotionally charged debates, our memories tend to be short.
I’m not sure why that is — maybe we get caught up in the moment, or maybe we prefer to color our view of the past with our outlook on the present. But whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate. I think we’d all benefit from a better understanding of history. Even recent history.
Because amid all the fiery debate today about guns and killing and rights and mental health and protecting schools and problem parenting and school walkouts and campaign cash and business boycotts, I’ve seen little mention of this fact from not so long ago: We banned certain high-powered weapons before.
And as far as I can tell, everyone maintained their constitutional rights and their ability to own weapons for hunting and self-defense.
In 1994, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed a ban on so-called assault weapons, but it was a 10-year ban rather than a permanent ban. President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2004, a Republican-controlled Congress failed to renew the ban. President George W. Bush wanted it to expire. Considering what’s happened since — Parkland, Vegas, Orlando, Aurora, Sandy Hook, et al. — I suspect presidential historians will come to view Bush’s inaction as a failure on par with his handling of the economy and Iraq War.
Dubbed the “Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act,” the 1994 law prohibited the sale or possession of nearly 20 military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
No, the assault-weapon ban didn’t stop mass killings — the Columbine massacre occurred in 1999, when two boys opened fire with a cadre of shotguns and semi-automatic weapons. But this much is also true — kids weren’t able to easily buy an AR-15, and mass shootings at schools weren’t an everyday concern.
Yes, a new assault-weapon ban would likely trigger a heated court battle. The political climate in 1994 was different, and the ban was never tested in the U.S. Supreme Court. But courts have often backed reasonable restrictions on guns, such as sawed-off shotguns, so there’s reason to believe they wouldn’t start viewing the Second Amendment now as a right to arm ourselves to the teeth.
The effectiveness of the 1994 assault-weapons ban has already been hotly debated by scholars and advocates; it has been criticized as loophole-ridden, overly complex and easy to skirt. Even supporters have acknowledged it could have been written better. Yet when considering its general effectiveness, the results of a study from one reputable anti-gun group make sense.
The Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence released a study in 2004 that looked at how many assault weapons named under the law were traced to crimes in the five years before and after the ban went into effect. It found a significant drop: Before the ban, 4.82 percent of gun-crime traces by federal authorities involved the named assault weapons, compared to 1.61 percent after the enactment of the ban.
In other words, the ban meant fewer military-style weapons were out there. Sixty-six percent fewer, in fact.
Republican Congressman Brian Mast of Florida gets it. In a powerful column in The New York Times, the Army veteran recently announced his support for a ban on the sale of assault weapons. “I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend,” Mast wrote.
It’s important to keep in mind that banning high-powered weapons doesn’t jeopardize our right to defend ourselves. Or hunt. My dad was an avid hunter, and I hunted with him as a teenager, and we can be certain that hunting rifles and handguns would remain protected, just as they were in 1994.
There is not, as President Donald Trump claimed in a speech last month, a looming threat to the Second Amendment. That is hyperbolic, politically motivated rhetoric, and that, too, is unfortunate.
A majority of Americans already see a ban on assault weapons as reasonable, with recent polls consistently showing between 60 and 70 percent approval for the idea. Now comes the hard part — convincing a majority of lawmakers, especially in hyperpartisan times. I’m afraid there aren’t enough Brian Masts in office.
It would help if we can be rational, avoid knee-jerk reactions, and resist the temptation to stand only with those on our side of the cultural divide. We all know what’s at stake — first and foremost, our children’s lives.
But remember, we did this before. We should do it again.
Richard Fellinger is an author, former journalist and fellow in Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing.