Just three short months ago, most articles about gun control focused on how little traction it had. Practically every public opinion poll showed guns and gun owners were held in higher esteem than they had been in decades. Gun sales were through the roof. Pro-gun legislation — castle doctrine, concealed-carry reciprocity, you name it — was on the march in most states. The Supreme Court told Washington, D.C., and Chicago that the Constitution did indeed apply to their cities.
And then, after nearly two decades of pro-gun momentum, it was ripped from our grasp in a span of 24 hours. The Newtown tragedy — one of the most heart-wrenching events ever to occur on U.S. soil — changed everything. Understandably, people wanted someone or something to blame. Unfortunately, rather than identifying the actual social and mental health issues causing so many people to harm others, President Barack Obama and many in the Democratic party have taken the lazy route: They're blaming guns. Obama even called for increased gun control in his inaugural address.
Just when you thought we'd won, it feels a lot like 1994 again — the year Major League Baseball went on strike, O.J. Simpson fled police in a white Bronco and Bill Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB).
Once again, gun rights are in a state of emergency. The president has proposed four key gun-control measures: a new federal "assault weapons" ban, background checks for private firearm sales (i.e., at gun shows), a ban on so-called "large capacity" magazines, and increased penalties for straw purchases and firearms trafficking.
Feinstein's "Assault Weapons" Bill
Of Obama's proposals, it is the "assault weapons" bill that has drawn the most media attention and concern from gun owners. Rightfully so, perhaps; the bill would immediately impact civilian firearms sales.
It's clear that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsor of the current "assault weapons" bill, has long anticipated this policy window and considered tweaks to the 1994 ban's language. The current bill would close what she considered loopholes in the expired ban and would affect an even greater variety of firearms.
The major "loophole" with the expired ban, as Feinstein sees it, is that gun manufacturers merely adjusted their firearm designs to comply with the bill. No telescoping stocks or detachable magazines you say? That's okay, we'll just use a standard stock and internal mag. The pro-gun community found poetic justice in the maneuver; the law banned firearm features that were essentially cosmetic in nature, so compliance only required cosmetic adjustments.
As long as firearms didn't meet two of the characteristics defined by Feinstein as "military style," they were legal. That's not the case for Feinstein's new bill. Any rifle, pistol or shotgun with a detachable magazine that meets even a single "military-style" characteristic would be banned. Characteristics considered military-style are similar to those found in the previous ban, with the addition of thumbhole stocks, bump-fire stocks and bullet buttons. Characteristics that were found in the 1994 law but not the new bill include bayonet mounts and flash suppressors, which can easily be removed, making the gun legal — not exactly Feinstein's goal.
Like the old law, Feinstein's bill would ban magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. It would also ban certain firearms by name; the 1994 law banned 19 specific guns, but the new bill would ban a whopping 157.
Perhaps most notable of all, however, there would be no sunset to the new law. The 1994 ban expired in 2004, but it would literally take an act of Congress to repeal the new bill. And given the country's budget standoff, we know how quickly our elected officials are to act on even the most pressing of matters.
Feinstein's Bill in Trouble
OK, everyone take a deep breath. Feinstein's bill — while very much real and a serious threat to gun rights — has hit strong resistance in the last two weeks, even from her own party. Democrats from gun-friendly states, especially, are afraid to touch it.
What's more likely to see a vote? A bill that would mandate background checks for private sales (gun shows) and strengthen gun trafficking laws. Democrats, it appears, believe these are far more centrist proposals than an "assault weapons" or magazine capacity ban. No bill has yet been introduced, but insiders believe that will occur any day now.
According to Politico, party leadership — including Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. — would prefer to see Feinstein's "assault weapons" bill offered on the Senate floor as an amendment to the pending gun-control legislation. This would allow red-state Democrats to vote against the "assault weapons" amendment while still voting for the larger overall bill — and, in theory, being reelected.
Given that renewing the "assault weapons" bill has arguably been Feinstein's biggest goal since its expiration, she isn't giving up quietly, but rather considering introducing it as an amendment at a Judiciary Committee markup later this month. If she does that, senators could not vote "no" on the AWB and "yes" on the overall gun control legislation — the entire package would be a yes or no vote.
Will Feinstein go that route?
"Probably," she told Politico. "This is a ways away."
That would potentially tank the entire gun-control legislation, even if it includes proposals endorsed by Obama that would've otherwise passed.
Proposals More Likely to Pass
Ironically, the proposals by President Obama most likely to be included in the Democrats' upcoming gun-control bill are those that were never part of existing law: federal background checks for private sales and increased penalties for firearms trafficking.
It's no secret that some politicians consider gun shows to be a loophole in existing law, given that private sellers can sell to private buyers without a background check. A big question surrounding the "universal" background checks proposal is whether the bill will include all private sales, or just those at gun shows. Regardless, it would probably come down to a close vote.
Increasing penalties for firearms trafficking, depending on the language, is probably the most likely proposal to gain bipartisan support. Democrats and even some pro-gun Republicans recommend increasing the penalty for knowingly selling a firearm to a prohibited person or purchasing a firearm on their behalf (straw purchasing) from a mandatory 10 years in jail to 20 years.
The Larger Commonality
Another characteristic the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban shares in common with the latest gun control proposals? A negligible impact on violent crime.
According to the vast majority of research, including by the University of Pennsylvania and a Congressionally mandated study by the U.S. Department of Justice, the AWB neither increased nor decreased violent crime. The government's study argued it would be difficult to determine the effect of the AWB one way or another, because the guns it affected were used in only a small fraction of crimes prior to the ban. In January, even Joe Biden — who is spearheading President Obama's gun-control task force — admitted "assault rifles" are not responsible for most gun deaths, but he wants to ban them anyway.
It's also a stretch to say background checks for private sales at gun shows would prevent crime. A 1991 study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that only 6 percent of career criminals bought their guns from flea markets and gun shows.
It does, however, appear that criminals buy guns through straw purchasers. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of state prison inmates convicted of firearm crimes found that 79 percent acquired their firearms from "street/illegal sources." This includes theft and straw purchases. So, why not increase the penalty for straw purchasing/selling to a mandatory 20 years? Well, an existing federal law fought for by the National Rifle Association already provides a mandatory sentence of 10 years. Would adding an additional 10 years actually prevent illegal sales?
Another question we could ask is this: Will the 2014 mid-term elections also feel like 1994? Because '94 isn't just the year President Clinton signed the Assault Weapons Ban. It's also the year that more than 60 of those who voted for it found themselves out of work.