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On assault weapons, presidents and the NRA

The gunman disabled the elevator, and then exited on the 34th floor of the San Francisco high-rise. A few steps later, he began systematically shooting the employees of a prestigious law firm.

Eight people were killed and six were wounded in a matter of minutes on that July afternoon in 1993. The killer carried an assault weapon, similar to a model that had been banned in California four years earlier.

Members of Congress contemplating additional assault weapon bans would later receive a letter that directly referred to the massacre in San Francisco:

"We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons. … While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.''

Among the three signatures on the letter were former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

• • •

The president is feeling heat from the National Rifle Association.

He supports the Second Amendment and has never suggested that Americans do not have the right to own or even carry guns.

Yet he has concerns about the amount of crime and mayhem associated with assault weapons, and he is talking about reducing high-capacity magazines.

The NRA is not pleased.

"There's an awful lot of disillusionment around the country,'' NRA official Wayne LaPierre said of the president's stance.

Gun enthusiasts began to fear potential weapon bans after a man used an AK-47 assault rifle to spray 106 bullets in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, killing five children and wounding 29 others. Since then, sales of assault weapons have spiked.

"I'm damned if I … know one hunter who goes out hunting with an AK-47,'' the president said. "I've got to do what I think is right.''

The president eventually bans the import of foreign assault rifles. The year is 1989, and the president is lifelong NRA member George H.W. Bush.

• • •

The mayor of New York is fed up.

Too many criminals, too many assault weapons, too many deaths.

He pushed for the idea of a national gun licensing program during his campaign, and he is now supporting Bill Clinton's anticrime bill that includes bans on 19 assault weapons.

A month before the mayor was sworn in for his first term, a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road walked up and down the aisle of a train randomly shooting innocent commuters. Within three minutes, five were dead and 19 wounded.

Five months later when the U.S. House passed the assault weapon ban by a vote of 216-214 in the spring of 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani applauded the legislation.

"This is an important step toward curtailing the indiscriminate proliferation of guns across the nation,'' Giuliani said.

• • •

They don't keep statistics on this sort of thing, but you have to think he is the only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to own four shotguns, three rifles and two handguns.

Former President Jimmy Carter says he has owned guns from the time he was old enough to carry them, and he kept a muzzle-loading rifle on display in his private office during his four years in the White House.

In an op-ed piece written in 2009, Carter went so far as to say he cherished his right to own a gun. And yet, at the same time, he said assault weapons had no place in society. Which is the exact phrase George W. Bush used when he was running for president in 1999. Carter urged lawmakers to ignore outrageous rhetoric and instead do more to protect police and citizens.

"NRA leaders have misled many gullible people into believing that our weapons are going to be taken away from us and that homeowners will be deprived of the right to protect ourselves and our families,'' Carter wrote. "The NRA would be justified in its efforts if there was a real threat to our constitutional right to bear arms.

"But that is not the case.''

In the month before Carter's piece appeared in newspapers, a man in upstate New York fired 98 rounds in an immigration center, killing 13 and injuring four. Weeks before, an Alabama man used an assault weapon to kill 10 people.

• • •

Mitt Romney once signed an assault weapons ban as governor of Massachusetts. Barack Obama pledged to go after assault weapons as a presidential candidate in 2008.

Neither, however, seems willing to make a possible ban on assault weapons an issue in this election year. The country's landmark assault weapons ban expired eight years ago, and there seems to be little enthusiasm to revisit the issue in the wake of the Colorado movie theater tragedy.

Maybe that's because American attitudes have changed. Twenty years ago, polls showed citizens overwhelmingly in favor of assault gun bans. Those same polls now show the country is more split on the issue and may actually be against the idea of new legislation. Or maybe it's because some of the lawmakers who passed the original 10-year ban in 1994 paid for it with their jobs when they were targeted by the NRA in future elections.

Bill Clinton believed Democrats lost control of Congress over gun control. "The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you're out,'' Clinton wrote in his autobiography.

No matter what the reasons, the results remain the same:

Every president of the last 38 years has, at one time or another, supported bans on assault weapons. And yet the echo of gunfire is never far away.

On assault weapons, presidents and the NRA 07/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 28, 2012 9:40pm]
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