Fate of last assault weapons ban hangs over renewed push for legislation

It has been two decades since then-President Clinton scored a headline-making political victory in banning assault weapons – and one decade since Congress let it lapse. But now, those vowing to capitalize on renewed public attention on tougher gun laws say this time it will stick.

“It’s got a very different feel to it this time around,” Peter Yellowlees, author of “Disaster Mental Health Series,” told FoxNews.com. “There’s a lot more national involvement in the debate and it’s my view that it’s not just the NRA driving the debate but a wide range of people who are in support of sensible reform.”

Still, those charging into this debate are surely cognizant of how the enthusiasm for a weapons ban faded the last time. Amid questions about the ban’s effectiveness and political considerations, Congress simply let it expire. While President Obama has joined with congressional Democrats to push a new assault weapons ban, a new ban on high-capacity magazines and other measures in response to the Connecticut school massacre, it’s unclear whether the mood has changed drastically since 2004.

Reauthorizing the law in 2004 would have been a mostly symbolic victory for Democrats since the law was filled with loopholes -- but the fact that they failed to get support on even that spoke volumes about the political climate of the time as well as the topic of gun control as a policy issue.

Even gun control advocates have acknowledged this.

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“After the 2000 race, the NRA did a very good job of making people believe guns were a central issue in that campaign,” Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said at the time. “I don’t think Al Gore lost because of the gun issue, but the NRA effectively convinced people. And in this town, conventional wisdom is just as important as reality.”

The NRA and other gun rights groups argued that politicians who backed the ban could be politically compromised during the following election cycle and pointed to the Republican takeover in the House as proof. Some Democrats backed off the issue and were reluctant to publicly endorse it.

To this day, there is vigorous debate about the effectiveness of the ban. The Brady campaign claims that in the five years before the ban, the affected weapons made up 4.8 percent of crime guns traced by ATF officials. After the ban, that number dropped to 1.6 percent – suggesting a drop in assault weapons used in crimes.

The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is authoring a new ban, claims the old law can be traced to a 6.7 percent decline "in total gun murders."

Even so, assault weapons make up only a fraction of weapons used in violent crimes – handguns are most popular. According to the Justice Department, gun-related homicides overall have declined since they peaked in 1993. That decline is mostly attributed to a drop in murders involving handguns, which fell from nearly 14,000 in 1993 to close to 9,000 a decade later.

Further, statistics show the number of mass shootings has not changed greatly over time – before, during and after the assault-weapons ban.

The recent gun control movement, though, has been able to recapture the momentum it had in the mid-1990s when the federal ban on assault weapons was issued. The 1994 law outlawed certain semi-automatic firearms with two or more specific design features and also stopped the manufacture of ammunition magazines that held over 10 rounds. The 10-year ban was passed and signed by Clinton that year on Sept. 13. As part of the law’s sunset provision, the ban was lifted a decade later without intervention.

At the time, many Republicans came out against Clinton and said he had abused his executive power on the topic. Opposition to the bill energized the National Rifle Association and the GOP base in Congress, ultimately leading to a Republican takeover in both chambers.

The expiration of the assault weapons ban represented a stunning symbolic blow to the gun control movement, in part because reauthorizing the ban would have been easy to do.

President George W. Bush even said he would sign a measure reauthorizing the ban if a “clean version” ever got to his desk, which it did not. The architect of the bill, Feinstein, D-Calif., pushed hard to have the ban reinstated but failed. As time passed and the political power of gun rights lobbyists grew, Feinstein’s shot at getting the ban back on the books faded.

Today, Yellowlees, a professor at UC David Health System Medical Science, says the fight which gained traction two decades ago but then petered out holds plenty of lessons for the Obama administration.

Earlier Wednesday, the president unveiled his comprehensive agenda to curb violence. Within minutes, the NRA had issued a response accusing the president of “attacking firearms and ignoring children.”

Yellowlees said the recent string of shootings in Connecticut and Colorado and the government’s push to curb gun violence will be viewed differently during the next election cycle. In the past, gun control wasn’t “a top-tier issue” but this time “it’s here to stay.”