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Mass shootings since the 1980s have provoked range of congressional responses

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. 

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