At 3 a.m. on July 2, 1993, Steve Sposato sat down in his darkened living room to write, by hand, a letter to the president of the United States. His life had just been shattered.
Hours earlier, in the afternoon, a deranged man armed with semiautomatic weapons had gone on a rampage, slaughtering eight people at an office building in downtown San Francisco. The gunman’s motive would remain forever a mystery. Among the slain: Steve’s wife, 30-year-old Jody Jones Sposato, the mother of his 10-month-old daughter, Meghan.
His anguished letter to the president asked how it was possible for someone to possess rapid-fire weapons with 30-round magazines, seemingly designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. “Now I’m left to raise my 10-month-old daughter on my own,” he told the president. “How do I find the strength to carry on?”
That letter reached President Bill Clinton. The next year, Sposato stood by Clinton’s side in the Rose Garden as the president demanded that Congress pass a ban on assault weapons, such as the TEC-9s used to kill Sposato’s wife. Sposato testified on the Hill wearing little Meghan on his back in a baby carrier.
With some moderate Republicans joining the Democratic majority, both houses of Congress passed a 10-year ban on the sale of assault weapons and large ammunition magazines. An attempt to extend the ban in 2004 died in Congress amid opposition from the gun lobby.
Now gun control has roared back into the national conversation as the country reels from the horror in Newtown, Conn. President Obama and his fellow Democrats are vowing to pass a new assault weapons ban, along with other new laws to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers and limit the size of ammunition magazines.
But although Newtown has supercharged the conversation on how to stop another massacre, the history of gun control is a cautionary tale for those who push for more regulations. If past is prologue, the legislative fights ahead will be protracted and brutal — and any resulting legislation may well be riddled with loopholes.
There is no uncontested ground here. Few issues in the country are as polarized as gun control.
The ideological chasm was on full display in Washington on Friday when the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, Wayne La... in which he called for a federal program to put armed guards in every school in the country, saying, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
He said laws making schools gun-free zones have backfired: “They tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” LaPierre’s remarks were twice interrupted by protesters; one held a sign saying, “NRA Killing Our Kids.”
The news conference provided a reminder that gun policy is a central feature of what is loosely known as the culture wars. The gun-control and gun-rights camps don’t even speak the same language, with one side arguing that the Second Amendment can’t possibly mean the right to own an assault weapon, while the other side says “assault weapon” is a pejorative invented by an urban elite that wouldn’t know an AR-15 from an AK-47.
The lack of common ground on this issue doesn’t preclude action. This time could be different, because Newtown and other mass shootings in recent months have exerted a powerful torque on the American conscience. But the basic rule on gun legislation is that nothing comes easy.
The historical pattern is striking: First comes a shocking event, then calls for action, then prolonged legislative battles, and at the end of it all a new law might come crawling out of Congress so enfeebled by exemptions that it has limited effect in the real world.
The classic example is that very same 1994 assault weapons ban advocated by Steve Sposato and Clinton and referenced frequently in recent days as a legislative landmark.
The law defined “assault weapon” narrowly, outlawing the sale of 19 brands of semiautomatic firearms, including certain guns built on the AR-15 design, which is the civilian version of the military’s M-16. To be banned, a gun had to have two or more military-style features, such as a pistol grip, a flash suppressor or a bayonet mount. Manufacturers found work-arounds, modifying their designs to comply with the law.
“There were so many ways around the ban that it wasn’t really effective,” said John W. Magaw, who ran the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) during that time.
The 1994 assault weapons ban was prospective, not retroactive. It didn’t outlaw the sale of assault weapons that had already been manufactured. And if you owned such a gun, you could keep it. By 1994, the country was already saturated with semiautomatic rifles and handguns.
There are now millions of such guns in circulation. The AR-15-style weapons have become extraordinarily popular — hyped by gun publications and online advertisements. They’ve been mainstreamed, in effect.
Connecticut has an assault weapons ban, modeled on the 1994 law. The Connecticut law also has a specific definition for “assault weapon.” The law, for example, did nothing to halt the sale of a certain brand of Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle.
One such gun was purchased by Newtown resident Nancy Lanza, a firearms enthusiast who, as the world now knows, liked to take her troubled son to firing ranges.
Bob Michel, a Republican and former House minority leader, remembers the weapon he carried when he hit the beach at Normandy with the 39th Infantry. It was a Browning automatic rifle, a machine gun with a 20-bullet magazine.
Long retired from Congress, Michel is closely following the gun-control debate, which includes proposals to limit the size of ammunition magazines.
“I don’t know what the magic number would be. But you shouldn’t be able to carry more bullets than I did during World War II,” Michel said.
As a congressman from Illinois, Michel had always been pro-gun. But in 1994, preparing to retire from Congress, Michel decided that he could support a ban on assault weapons without doing violence to the Second Amendment.
“I was opposed to the ban mostly because of the influence that the National Rifle Association had. But you have to vote your conscience. I knew what damage these weapons can do,” Michel recalled. “The NRA, they just monitored everything very, very closely. The whole argument was, if we thought we shouldn’t have assault weapons, they thought the next thing we’d do was we’d take away everyone’s pistols. When you’re a junior congressman, there are pressure groups that you bow to. But as I got older and wiser, you say, ‘My gosh, how long are we going to contend with this?’ I wanted to get something done before I left.”
One target of NRA wrath was William J. Hughes, a veteran Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey who chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime. He immersed himself in a series of gun-control bills, including efforts to ban armor-piercing bullets. Gun activists showed up at his town-hall meetings. They made posters superimposing Hughes’s face on Adolf Hitler’s body with an arm extended in a Nazi salute.
Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who later turned on the organization, says of Hughes: “He was very frustrating to us because he was from the most pro-gun area of New Jersey, very rural. That’s big gun country. If you knew there was a district meeting, I would send out a mailing to every member within 50 miles and ask them to show up. ‘Here are the issues you want to ask him about.’ There would be a traffic jam in a suburban town.”
Hughes, now 80, said the NRA tried to have his membership revoked in a sportsman’s club in Carneys Point Township, N.J.
“I was an honorary member. That became a cause celebre to get me kicked out, and some of the members tried to get me out,” Hughes said. “I came in with assault weapons to show them that they were part of the legislation, that it would not impact their ability to hunt. I showed them how lethal they were and no legitimate hunter would need that kind of a weapon.” He kept his membership.
But Dan Glickman didn’t keep his job: The nine-term Democratic congressman serving Wichita, Kan., thought he was cruising to reelection in 1994. After he voted for the assault weapons ban, he learned otherwise.
Glickman, a Wichita native, had recently passed a bill limiting the liability of small-aircraft manufacturers. That saved a lot of local jobs. One day, going door to door, Glickman shook hands with a man who congratulated him on the liability bill.
“But I can't vote for you,” the man said.
Why not? asked Glickman.
“Because of your vote on guns.”
Glickman said the law would merely ban assault weapons. Surely the man didn’t need one of those.
“Dan, don’t tell me what I need or don’t need,” the man said.
Glickman lost that November, as did scores of Democrats. The Republicans reclaimed the House for the first time in 40 years. Gun control was only one factor in the Democratic wipeout — many Democrats had backed a 1993 tax hike and an ambitious health-care-reform plan dubbed Hillarycare. But the 1994 election signaled a new era in which gun control would become a harder sell in Congress. The two parties became more ideologically distinct, with fewer moderates.
After Al Gore failed to carry his home state of Tennessee in his 2000 presidential bid, political analysts said one factor was Gore’s backing of gun control. Democrats in rural and blue- collar districts came to see gun control as a political loser. In 2004, Congress debated an extension of the 1994 ban, but gun control faced political headwinds that hadn’t been there in the previous decade, and the ban expired.
Sarah Brady didn’t become a gun-control advocate immediately after her husband, Jim, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, was shot in the head by John Hinckley during his attempt to assassinate the president in 1981. Her conversion happened four years later. She was jumping into a friend’s pickup truck with her son, Scott, who was about 5 years old. The little boy found a pistol, a little one, a .22, sitting on the front seat. Sarah Brady snatched the gun from the boy’s hand and confronted the driver. He said he kept it for self-defense.
Later, watching TV, she heard that the NRA was trying to gut the 1968 Gun Control Act.
She called the NRA: “I’m going to devote my life to fighting you people,” she said.
The first federal gun-control law, the National Firearms Act of 1934, levied a restrictive tax on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. That was in response to gangsters using Tommy guns during gang wars in Chicago and other big cities.
The 1968 act, passed after the assassinations of the 1960s, took broader aim at gun violence. The new laws prohibited felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns; raised to 21 the age for legally purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer; and expanded the licensing program for gun dealers.
The NRA kept pushing back. In 1986, Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which, among other things, restricted the number of times the ATF could inspect gun dealers.
In that climate, Sarah Brady became an activist:
“You can begin to see a sea change of attitudes during this time. The NRA was fighting against the cop-killing bullets and plastic guns, and we got into an alliance with law enforcement and we just got together and said, ‘What’s the first thing we should do?’ And we all said, ‘Background checks.’ ”
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, and a later version of the law, created a national system for checking the backgrounds of gun buyers: the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) maintained by the FBI. By the end of 2012, the system had performed more than 156 million background checks, with nearly a million gun purchases blocked by federal denials.
But the law covered only licensed gun dealers. Private sales from one person to another are exempt from the background checks required by federal law. This is known as the “gun show loophole.” Experts think this accounts for about 40 percent of all gun sales.
The gun lobby has tried to limit the powers of the ATF. The agency has fewer agents today than it did nearly 40 years ago and is able to inspect only a fraction of the nation’s 60,000 retail gun dealers each year. The director of the ATF requires Senate confirmation, and the Justice Department has been unable to get an ATF director confirmed in six years. The agency currently only has an interim acting director.
A consistent feature of federal gun-control laws is the prohibition of a federal database on gun ownership. This is a bright-line issue for the NRA, which has compared a federal database of gun ownership to actions by Nazi Germany.
But LaPierre, in his remarks Friday, made clear that the NRA would support a different kind of national database:
“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark? A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”
The broader picture includes a fact that seems paradoxical in light of Newtown: There is actually less gun violence today than there was 20 years ago. The national homicide rate is down to the level it was at in the early 1960s. But mass shootings have not declined in tandem with the homicide rate.
No affluent, developed country has anything close to the U.S. level of gun violence. Of the 12,664 homicides in 2011, according to federal statistics, 8,583 were committed with a gun.
No one knows precisely how many guns are owned in the United States, but estimates start at 270 million and rise from there. In 2010, the most recent year for comprehensive federal statistics on firearms commerce, U.S. companies manufactured more than 5 million guns and imported 3 million more.
In January 2011, the annual SHOT Show — the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show and Conference, the premier event for the firearms industry — drew 55,000 people to the Venetian Las Vegas Hotel. The show featured 1,600 exhibitors, with one of the most popular displays being the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle.
Just 11 days before the convention opened, Jared Loughner opened fire in Tucson, killing six people and wounding 13 more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“What happened in Tucson was not a failure of gun-control laws,” Lawrence Keane, the general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade group that happens to be based in Newtown, said at the time. “This was a failure of the mental-health system.”
In recent days, gun dealers have reported that Bushmaster semiautomatic rifles and similar guns have been flying off the shelves.
“Some people have mentioned that they have always thought about getting an AR, and now with talk of a ban, they are, just in case,” said Donnel Dover, manager of Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly.
At Engage Armament in Rockville, which specializes in combat-style rifles, co-owner Andrew Raymond said, “We’ve sold out of almost every AR-15 we have.”
He said guns that sold for $1,200 last week will soon be selling for $1,800.
The horrific shooting in Connecticut, he said, is likely “the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is going to be the battle flag of the gun-control crowd.”
He asked: “How much freedom do we really give up for security? It’s not just about guns, it’s about everything single thing we do.”
The battles ahead will be fought by many people, not just lawmakers and lobbyists. Decisions will be influenced by public opinion, which showed a spike in favor of gun restrictions after Newtown.
“I have not seen the country so moved to action since September 11th,” said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine. What’s different this time is that Newtown followed so many other recent mass shootings — including one just days earlier in Portland, Ore. “There’s this sense of ‘We have got to do something, and I want to know what my part is.’ ”